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Young Adult revisited: A critical look at Sweet Valley High

July 16, 2014

Halfway-There

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Trigger warning: Discussion of anorexia in a fictional story.

Young adult literature was a lot different back in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, we have an endless series of humans falling in love with vampires, zombies, werewolves and other assorted creatures of the night. We have teenagers fighting in dystopian societies who must enter violent and deadly competitions to survive and/or to change the status quo. We have ordinary teenagers who suddenly learn they have special powers and they are the only ones to stop the evil about to takeover their town.

When I was in middle and high school, most of the young adult books were less supernatural in nature, apart from the awesome, and now hard-to-find, Dark Forces and Twilight: Where Darkness Begins (yup, we had our own Twilight series way before Stephanie Meyer cooked up sparkly vampires and their problematic romances with self-depreciating teenage girls), R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series and Goosebumps series, and the fun and over-the-top Point Horror books. Teenage supersleuths Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were still around, but the stories were updated for a new generation, with more romance and violence. But there was one series I absolutely adored when I was all of nine years old. The year was 1983, the debut of Sweet Valley High.

The book that started it all.

Sweet Valley High was created by Francine Pascal, but most or all of the books were ghostwritten. The main characters were 16-year-old identical twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield — blonde, with aqua eyes and “perfect size six figures” (which was changed to size four when the books were reissued with modern updates since size six is so fat now). They were also cliched as hell. Jessica was the “bad twin”: boy-crazy, obsessed with fashion and gossip and getting what she wanted. Elizabeth was the “good twin”: an excellent student with a longtime boyfriend who was kind to everyone and dressed modestly. The twins, their friends (and enemies) lived in the picture-perfect suburb of Sweet Valley, California and spent so much time at the beach or going to parties you’d think they were living in a Beach Boys’ song.

Looking back at the series with an adult eye, the drama was bizarre and contrived. These 16- and 17-year-old characters were written like they were 40 years old. If you think unrealistic dialogue for teenagers started with Dawson’s Creek, think again:

  • “Sandy’s a doll, but her taste is … suspect.”
  • “I was talking to AJ Morgan the other day. He said he met a girl on the beach with an ego the size of Utah. And a butt to match.”
  • “Jess, please stop acting that way around AJ.” “What way?” “You know, spineless, weak, like a complete dullard.”

I never talked like this when I was 16, and neither did anyone else my age I knew. Hell, I don’t know anybody in their 30s and 40s who talk like this. But I think the over-the-top dialogue and plots of these books attracted so many of us to read them. With all the dances and backstabbing and romance, Sweet Valley High certainly made my school sound like Dullsville, USA.

There were a ton of problems with the Sweet Valley books; problems you don’t think about when you’re nine years old. There was quite a bit of fat-shaming. One character that never had a story of her own, but was mentioned randomly, was a supposedly-fat girl named Lois Waller (and, of course, since she’s fat, she doesn’t get an attractive name like the Wakefield twins or Lila Fowler or Amy Sutton). She was always the target of fat jokes and was always seen eating a lot in the cafeteria. Considering that all the main girls in this thing were size six or smaller, Lois was probably a 10 or a 12 at most (I wore a regular size large at this time, so I could definitely relate to Lois and all the crap she got from her classmates).

Another female character that did get stories of her own was Robin Wilson. In the first few books, she started off fat and was treated nastily, but lost weight and obtained The Fantasy of Being Thin: she joined the cheerleading squad, became a member of the high school sorority (what high schools even have sororities?) and stole another girl’s boyfriend. Later on down the road, she developed anorexia due to school pressure, but by the end of that book, she was magically OK.

This leads to another issue with Sweet Valley High — when a character does go through trauma, there are no lasting effects. The only exception was when rich debutante Lila Fowler is nearly raped and goes into therapy and can’t handle being around guys for a while. If I had a dollar for every time the Wakefield twins were stalked, kidnapped and nearly killed, I could buy the entire island of Maui. And they came out pretty much unscathed.

Fat-shaming aside, Sweet Valley High was actually pretty fun to read, although the plots got even more ridiculous as it went on. The franchise, counting spinoffs like Sweet Valley Twins and SVU, has been around for over 20 years, making it one of the longest-running YA series’ ever. It was escapism, pure and simple, and not meant to be taken seriously. Of course, when you compare it to today’s darker, grittier YA fiction like The Hunger Games and Divergent, it’s easy to dismiss it as badly-written, fluffy, outdated tripe. Although it would be fun to see Jessica and Elizabeth battle it out in a post-apocalyptic world. Hmm, maybe I should write Francine Pascal and give her an idea for a new Sweet Valley saga. She’s already had them face a vampire and a wannabe werewolf way before Bella Swan did, so it wouldn’t be that weird. 😉

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2014 1:41 pm

    I was more of a Babysitters Club reader myself (along with Nancy Drew)….but it’s pretty darn similar to Sweet Valley 🙂

  2. lifeonfats permalink
    July 18, 2014 10:51 am

    I read the BSC too along with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden:-D

  3. July 18, 2014 9:13 pm

    Reblogged this on The Netherworld and commented:
    Ah yes, Sweet Valley High. I graduated from high school in 1983, and at that point my focus was drugs and rock and roll. I wasn’t someone who got much sex–I tended to be more interested in romancing the keg than hooking up with random meatheads at parties.
    One of my “guilty pleasures” was books like Sweet Valley High, which totally went against my headbanger/punk/goth/whatever the hell image. I found the books ridiculous, but I got a kick out of reading them. Of course the characters were ridiculously, stereotypically “beautiful.” At this point in my life, I accepted that without question.
    It’s kind of fun to look back on just how cliched these books are, but it also reveals the continuing beauty prejudice. Those who don’t meet the standards of “beauty” are relegated to sad, miserable, unfulfilled lives. More to the point, they simply don’t exist, because in worlds such as Sweet Valley High takes place in, everyone is thin, beautiful, and white.

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