Everything old is new again! I’m re-reading Sweet Valley High. The seminal 1980s teen fiction series has been re-released electronically. And the best part? Original cover art! I’m guessing some readers who are my age also grew up with Sweet Valley’s blonde protagonists Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. For those of you who aren’t familiar, here’s a quick overview:
Sweet Valley High is a series of young adult novels written by Francine Pascal. They chronicle the scintaliating escapades of the 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.
Except for the fact that Liz wears her hair pulled back in barrettes and Jess lets hers hang free, the twins are virtually indistinguishable in terms of their frequently lauded physical perfection. Their 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 also populated by cavalcade of teenage characters. Winston Egbert – the token geek. Bruce Patman – the wealthy, attractive jackass that’s a guy. Lila Fowler – the wealthy, attractive jackass 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, I know I’m making the series sound awful. That’s because it kind of was. But I didn’t use to think so. As a kid, Sweet Valley High was a fascinating peek into what I assumed life would be in a few short years when I started 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! She eventually woke up but she had Jessica’s scheming conniving personality! My fifth grade mind was blown! 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 had 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 prototype, 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 concepts of sex, relationships, and body image if I’d also been getting information from more reliable, less sensationalized 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 puberty had already started changing my body, 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 and time moves quickly. And while people 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.
Still, I’m enjoying my return to Sweet Valley High. 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 has the benefit of an outer 39-year-old who can help her separate what’s fact from what’s fiction.
Already Pretty contributor Nadine Thornhill is a sex educator and writer. She has recently returned to her hometown of Toronto, Ontario to complete her doctoral studies in Human Sexuality. Her writing tends toward subjects such as clitorises, feminism, vibrators, body image, gender politics and non-monogamy. She is a passionately committed Scrabble player and lifelong klutz, having sustained 16 concussions to date