Oh my god, peeps. Me and my inner 10-year-old have to tell you something! Guess which seminal 1980s teen fiction series was just re-released electronically with – HOLY BALLS – orginal cover art?
That’s right! SWEET VALLEY HIGH!!!!!
I’m guessing that some of you – the ones from my cohort at least – also grew up with Sweet Valley’s blonde protagonists Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. For those of you who are all ‘Sweet Valley High? WTF?’ let me break it down, Coles Notes style.
(For those of you who are all ‘Coles Notes? WTF?’ they were short books that summarized longer books. The Wikipedia of its time.)
Sweet Valley High were a series of young adult novels written by Francine Pascal. They chronicle the scintaliating escapades of eponymous Southern California school’s junior class. The main characters are sixteen-year-old twin sisters Elizabeth and Jessica. Liz and Jess are described in every book as having shoulder length blonde-hair, flashing blue-green eyes, “perfect” skin and “perfect” figures. They also have perfect parents, a perfect, super-studly older brother and they all live together in their perfect ranch-style, California back-split.
The twins are virtually indistinguishable in terms of their frequently lauded physical perfection They’re personalities, however; are completely opposite.
Jess is top dog at the sorority. Liz is editor of the newspaper. Liz has a steady boyfriend. Jess is a serial dater. Jess is self-absorbed and kind of a jerk sometimes. Liz is also a self-centered pain in the ass but in a super-condescending, pseudo-altruistic way that my fifth-grade brain interpreted as “nice”.
Sweet Valley High is populated by cavalcade of teenage characters. Winston Egbert – the token geek. Bruce Patman – the wealthy, attractive douchebag. Lila Fowler – the wealthy, attractive douchebag that’s a girl. Regina Morrow – the hearing impaired, ethereal beauty and perpetual victim. Lois Waller – the fat girl whom Jess torments and Liz patronizes. Todd Wilkins – all American dream-hunk and Elizabeth’s steady.
If you’ve never experienced SVH, my sniderey must make the series sound awful. It kind of was. But I didn’t think so at the time. As a kid, Sweet Valley High was a fascinating peek into what I assumed life would be in a few short years when I began high school.
The Sweet Valley Teens were glamourous! They drove cars. They hung out at The Dairi Burger after school. They went on spring break trips to Malibu and Cannes! Once Elizabeth was in a motoycycle accident and wound up in a coma. Then she came to and she was a full-on Jessica – all scheme-y and conniving! The drama was epic and awesomesauce.
In book number two – Secrets – Bruce Patman is making out with Jessica at a pool party AND UNDOES HER BIKINI TOP UNDER THE WATER! Let me tell you, when I first read that, it the effect of straight up porn. And I wanted to read more. Which I did.
Francine Pascale’s books explored many things most of the adults in my life weren’t discussing with me. They likely assumed I was too young to be curious about romance, relationships or sex. Meanwhile, I was dying to know. Sweet Valley High felt like an answer to many of my questions. I devoured them like literary candy. And like candy, the short-term experience was delicious but the long-term effects were less than healthy. In retrospect, I internalized a lot of what I read in those books as truth.
SVH confirmed my long held suspicions that blonde was the epitome of beautiful. The less you resembled that “perfect” sun-kissed protoypte, the less beautiful you were.
I learned that “good” kids had perfect homes and harmonious family dynamics, while the bad teens were the product of dysfunctional environments.
No one liked the fat girls, the quiet girls or the girls who dressed in brown. And they certainly didn’t like themselves.
The worthy girls had boyfriends who chose them. The other girls sat on the sidelines feeling envious and ugly.
Good girls had relationships but not sex. Sex was for the bad girls. Their promiscuity – and their bold taste in lipstick – is how you knew they were bad!
Thinking back to the girl I was, I can’t help but wonder how Sweet Valley High would have affected my concept of sex, relationships and body image if I’d also been getting information from more reliable, less sensational sources. Of course the older, wiser people around me -my teachers, my parents, my family – had my best interests at heart. It can be difficult for a full-fledged adult to look at fifth-grade girl and see someone on the road to becoming an adult. Ten is very young. But at ten I was already maturing. Puberty had already started changing my body with the beginnings of hips, breasts and pubic hair. I was feeling the stir of hormones and my first period was mere months away.
Young people look ahead and think ahead. Kids are intrigued by grown up stuff. It’s where they’re going. Time moves quickly. And while we in our society tend to relegate sex to an exclusively adult domain, I suspect that like me, many begin to ponder their sexuality and sexual expression long before they become sexually active. It’s a big part of the reason that I support open, age-appropriate discussion with youth. When I was ten I wanted to know what being grown-up might be like. How did dating work? What would kissing like? How was I to behave, dress and express myself as a woman? No one around me was talking about these things. So I turned to Sweet Valley High. And as thrilling as my beloved books were, many of the answers they gave me were wrong.
Nonetheless, I’m still squeeing with excitement and looking forward to my return to Sweet Valley High. I suspect my inner 10-year-old will be every bit as enamoured with Liz, Jess and the gang as she ever was. But this time, she’ll have the benefit of an outer 37-year-old who can help her separate what’s fact from what’s fiction.