[Saturday Reads] Revisiting Sweet Valley High in my Late 30s – What Works and What Doesn’t

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Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just booklove miscellany in general.

Widget courtesy of the talented Iphigene.

Widget courtesy of the talented Iphigene.

I know I could not let our reading theme go by without revisiting my favourite series when I was a teenager. When Iphigene recommended that we do a throwback reading for the first two months of 2015, I cringed because I know I would have to own up to my Sweet Valley High addiction and reflect a bit on what it was about this series that appealed to me.

I used to own all the titles in the series, and would even rent some of them out during the summer. What can I say, I was a little entrepreneur back then. I eventually sold all my books away, and so I am glad to find copies of Sweet Valley High from the public libraries here in Singapore. It was only fairly recently that I learned how there were ghostwriters who actually wrote the series, while Francine Pascal came up with fresh ideas and the whole spirit behind Sweet Valley High. Needless to say, I was crushed when I discovered this fact.

Francine Pascal. Taken from her Goodreads page. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

I breathed and smelled and starved for these books when I was a young, bright-eyed, sweet, impressionable little thing (well, I still am a little thing, but I digress). I would content myself with buying chips for lunch or asking for a few bites from good friends who always have more than enough, so that I can save my precious pocket money to binge-buy all the titles I can get my hands on during the weekend, as I devoured the stories quickly, and with relish. I used to finish around three to four books a day. They were quick reads for me, and allowed me to get lost in this almost-mythical place called Sweet Valley filled with glamorous yet fairly-accessible teenagers with all their issues, drama, and easily-resolved conflicts that consumed me for a time, providing me with delicious escape. This was the period in my young life when America seemed nothing but a faraway country of dreams.

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Our first visit in the US circa 2009.

Much of this vision is also crafted within the text, evident in the way Elizabeth Wakefield describes her beautiful city as seen in Double Love, which I managed to reread for our reading theme (hooray for me!):

Liz loved the green jewel of a California town that was their home. She loved the gently rolling hills, the palm trees swaying in the breeze, and the soft white-sand beach only fifteen minutes away. Going over the hill toward school, she could see the sun glinting against the blue waters of the Pacific in the distance. (p. 15)

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The thing is, you won’t just read this glowing description once in the book, it is found throughout the narrative. Clearly, the ghost-authors very capably established a sense of place in this series. And the reader encounters this description again and again in subsequent books in the first few pages, as the twins, their friends, and the hometown where they live are described all over again; the storyline has a comforting formula to it. Admittedly, these are parts of the story that my eyes would quickly gloss over so that I can arrive at the meat of the story for that particular installment in the series.

If I were to reflect back on it, these books may even be considered my multicultural read at the time, as it allowed me a glimpse of another lifestyle previously unknown to me. There was no burning desire from my end to live their lives or to even go to America – which seemed like another planet to me at the time. There was just an endless fascination over common things that seemed to go beyond cultural boundaries or differences. There were the petty jealousies, cliques, endless insecurities, seemingly-tough life choices and thoroughly-simplistic moral dilemmas (which of course seemed huge at the time), and underlying it all would be the classic desire to fit in and find a sense of belonging somewhere, anywhere.

Book Cover Disappointment

When I borrowed the first three titles via inter-library loan, I had no idea that I will be getting the new editions of the books. While I don’t know the exact year when the publishers updated the book covers, I can surmise that it must be roughly around the time when SVH was made into a TV series. Needless to say, I was disappointed. I was expecting something like this:

but I got this instead:

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Somehow, the actual photographs of blond, blue-eyed, all-American twins just didn’t do it for me. And re-reading my favourite books with these new covers made me feel like they went through a Botox procedure.

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Now these are the books I read when I was a child. They are familiar, almost vintage-y now that I am in my late 30s, and they fill me with nostalgia.

Of Blackberries, Blogs, and Unnecessarily Revised Texts

The revised text copyright is 2008 (original publication year was 1983). There was no internet while I was growing up, not sure if there was even a computer. For reasons that I could not fathom, the publishers decided to change the dated aspects of the text: the Oracle is now being written in a computer (what, typewriters are not good enough?), Elizabeth’s column The Insider is being published in a blog (what’s wrong with printed newsletters?), and the adults are carrying blackberries (no mobile phones then, hello?). The incongruous part, however, is that the publishers painfully retained the plot twists and character development – resulting in a patchwork quilt of old and new haphazardly stitched together. It’s like Laura Ingalls Wilder in modern day New York City – while a little extreme, you may have a sense of what I mean.

The temperaments, language, sensibilities, disposition of the characters remain very 80s and retro yet with modern gadgets and technology slapped rudely into the narrative. The dated aspect of it, I believe is what makes it unique, allowing modern readers a glimpse of what life was like during the time when this series was popularized – back when their own parents were teenagers. Again, the publishers seemed to have missed this point entirely, preferring instead to take the path of least resistance and what would yield the largest returns. These books, after all, are not really deemed as classic literature – hence the lack of concern perhaps in retaining its original essence – it’s a business more than anything else. Young impressionable consumers wouldn’t really know the difference, unless they’re pretty savvy with these kinds of things, and discerning enough. As an adult rereading the book, however, I was dismayed by the needless update that didn’t really do anything much for the storyline.

What Still Worked: Plot-Driven Narratives with Characters You Love to Hate and Grow to Love

I could not believe how many things were going on as I read the story, making me flip the pages rapidly to see what would happen next. There is the entire love triangle going on between Elizabeth – Todd Wilkins – Jessica. Yet unlike modern YA books that seem to get all hung-up on just this thread, Double Love also takes on the mystery of the older brother (Steven Wakefield) from University going back home during the weekends (more often than usual), why is that? Then there’s the whole thing between the twins’ father and the new associate in his lawfirm with whom he has been spending inordinately long hours with – are their parents getting a divorce? There’s the battle between the wealthy Fowlers and the Patmans (very Gossip Girl – California version) who are bidding for the ownership of the high school football field. Will Jessica’s scheming and lying face be revealed in the end? Will she get her comeuppance? And what’s with this dangerous dude with the fast car, Rick Andover? I don’t even remember his character at all. A friend who’s a divorce lawyer Mesa AZ was a major help in describing alot of the steps.  Then there are the rumors about Elizabeth in school and how her best friend Enid Rollins tried to stick up for her even if it was against her overly-judgmental and extremely possessive boyfriend Ronnie Edwards’ wishes. Oh yes, one drama after the next; clearly a plot-driven story, but with enough rounded characters allowing the reader to root for the good guys (or the bad girls, whatever rocks your boat), with enough investment in the narrative to want to see the story through til the end. That is what continues to work for me.

I did not remember Jessica Wakefield being this narcissistic, though. She is clearly manipulative, self-absorbed, and a pathological liar. Accusing someone of date rape is serious, yet she gets away with it – no thanks to her twin sister, Elizabeth, who should have known better yet seemed incapable of ever showing some kind of tough love. But then again, this kind of foil character is essential to highlight just how pure and golden Elizabeth is. There were also quick little sketches of other characters (Winston Egbert, Lila Fowler, Bruce Patman, Dana Larson) that would make any avid reader want to pick up the other books in the series, in the hopes of finding out more about their story.

Saying Hello (and Goodbye) to my Teenage Self through Sweet Valley High

Growing up, I did not know about Newbery titles, or the Costa Book Prize in the UK, or other award-winning titles in other parts of the world. The Philippines had no public libraries to speak of where young girls such as myself can borrow books. Recreational reading materials were considered a luxury then, particularly the classics – only the wealthy can afford to purchase them. It was the time of encyclopedias – Colliers, Childcraft, Charlie Brown – all of which my parents bought for me too. The Sweet Valley High books were fairly-cheap paperback reads that I can easily buy from any bookstore if I save enough allowance money (and I always do). They were books that I chose to read then. They provided quick satisfaction in between the classic novels (Little Women, Huckleberry Finn) my older cousin would loan me on occasion. They were my munchers, my tasty snackers as I wait for the longer, more challenging reads.

The characters here were my friends, almost like family, in fact. I knew them intimately: their little secrets, buried wishes, hidden longings. It also made me appreciate the paradox of what it means to be a reader. While on the one hand, it provided me with my very own “cone of silence” – my means of escape from my humdrum existence – it also showed me how reading can be a social activity. My friends read the book, we all know who the characters were – we talked about them and discussed their latest adventures, and took sides against their little showdowns. We grieved with Elizabeth when Todd Wilkins left for university and it seemed like they were truly saying goodbye. We exchanged books and we took pride in being among the first people to know what happened next in the series.

While parents, librarians, well-meaning aunties (or even uncles) may worry about their kids getting addicted to book series of dubious literary quality – I can personally claim that these books provided me with the reading stamina I needed to eventually move to the likes of Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, John Grisham for my then-bestselling reads; then on to Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman when I reached my university years. This series taught me never to turn my nose up on supposedly-low-brow reading materials, because I believe books happen to the reader for a reason and arrive at the perfect time. And I am glad to have said hello (and a tender good-bye) to my naive teenage self once again through Sweet Valley High.

2 Comments on [Saturday Reads] Revisiting Sweet Valley High in my Late 30s – What Works and What Doesn’t

  1. Fascinating! I missed that series, so it was especially interesting to hear about your affection for it, how social it was for you and your friends, your thoughts about the covers and the insertion of modern tech, and a general defense of books happening for the reader when they need them. I remember when it seemed like my son was only going to read nonfiction and I was like, “Come on! Branch out!” and he did, but not until *he* was ready.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel like we’re book sisters (I know it must be weird to hear this from a total stranger – but I hope you know what I mean. I’ve been following your recommendations for a while!) I grew up reading SVT and SVH as well, and my friends and I would lend each other these books and talk about the twins as if they were our friends, too. Like you, I can’t stand the new covers. The old covers are lovely. What struck me most in your review was your acknowledgment that SVH and SVT opened the door to a wider reading world for you. It was the same for me. In the 80s and 90s, we didn’t have as many book choices available in the Philippines as we do now. But what I liked most of all was this: “This series taught me never to turn my nose up on supposedly-low-brow reading materials, because I believe books happen to the reader for a reason and arrive at the perfect time.” This is so true. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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