Sunday, July 11, 2010

The New Sweet Valley - by Jessica DiMaio

Since discovering that Random House is reissuing (as well as revamping) the Sweet Valley High books, I am going through a major bout of junior high series nostalgia. I remember my very first Sweet Valley was Sweet Valley Twins #2, the one where the sixth grade twins take ballet class and the teacher likes Elizabeth better because she's the nice one and Jessica is a brat and it's totally unfair because Jessica is a better dancer. The ghostwriter stresses that Jessica really is the better dancer, and how when she dances, suddenly she is transported to a world of fluffy pink clouds. Then by the next book, she's over it and doing something else, probably going to extra meetings of the Unicorn Club. In any case, this was my gateway to Sweet Valley. My mom bought me Sweet Valley High #1 when I was sick. I don't know if she realized what she was getting me into. I got made fun of a lot when I was a kid for reading all the time, but my Sweet Valley collection was still the envy of my class.

Now the twins are back, poised to compete with the Gossip Girl books, and whatever other crappy series about snotty rich kids is popular right now. I found teaser chapters and it's just bizarre to read. SVH was as 80s as you can get, and I can't wrap my mind around Elizabeth writing a blog instead of a newspaper column, and Jessica glued to her cell phone. Of course, the big controversy right now is that the perfect twins have gone from a size 6 to a size 4. This has pissed a lot of people off, but I think the furor is a bit silly. These are the fucking Wakefield twins, people! All these books ever did was beat you over the head with how flawless they were. The sun-dappled blonde hair that never needed highlights or got dried out from swimming in the ocean, the aquamarine eyes that did things like "dance" and "sparkle" and "shine", the perfect tan skin, the one lone dimple in the left cheek. You all know the drill, say it with me!

Honestly, when reading the updated chapter, what stood out to me is that the in-depth analysis of their amazing beauty was shortened a lot. The prose is much less flowery. Yes, they still make it as clear as they can that these girls are goddesses on earth, but it's down to one paragraph instead of three pages. I get the feeling that the 11 yr old girls who will be reading these now are okay with sizing, but would really gag on the Odes to Wakefields that we lapped up at that age. Another thing I noticed was how much younger they seem. When I was a kid, I knew the characters were 16, but they felt much older than that, more like mid-20s. Reading the new chapters, they really do seem 16, and these days 16 is like a baby to me. Is this because I've gotten older? Or is it because the new ghostwriters are a bit more savvy with teen-speak than the ones in the 80's were? The previous Wakefields were always more of an adult's idea of a teenager than an actual teenager.

Mostly I'm wondering if they're actually re-writing the whole series from top to bottom, or if they're just going to do that with the first few books before moving on to some new plotlines after that. Those books had some pretty 80's-tastic moments that I don't think would translate to Millenials. Like remember when Jessica decided she wanted to look different from Elizabeth and she dyes her hair black? (A plot twist held very dear to every girl with dark hair, by the way.) Not only does she dye it black, but she suddenly decides that she's French and uses bad French phrases as much as she can. She goes shopping with Lila Fowler and buys horrendous outfits that include a lot of leopard print and snakeskin. She only eats salads, which isn't necessarily a bad thing since everyone in Sweet Valley only consumed burgers and shakes from the Dairi Burger (size 6, my ass!). I'm wondering if in the updated version, Jessica will be emo instead of French. Maybe she'll start wearing all black and sit in her chocolate-colored room listening to the Droids and cutting 1BRUCE1 into her arm.

And will there be sex in this new series? I know nothing about the Gossip Girl books, but I'm assuming those girls are getting around the bases more than Jess and Liz ever did. Sweet Valley relationships started and ended with kissing. Kissing that read like sex. Long, lingering kisses that made toes curl and hair stand on end and body parts tingle (not those body parts though). With kisses like that, who needs sex? Even boy-crazy Jessica never let anyone get to second base. Hell, Todd was lucky that Liz even let him get to first base. It's up to debate if she ever let him slip her some tongue. Not that he would have tried, the wuss.

I stopped reading them about the time I got to high school. It would have been too embarrassing to walk around as a 14 yr old with SVH #145. Plus I was done with all series books by that time anyway. I was tired of Every Single Book spending five pages telling me in great detail how knock-out gorgeous the Wakefield twins were "but that's where the similarity ended!" I was tired of Jessica's personality swinging from shallow bitch to loving sister from book to book. I was sick to death of Elizabeth and Todd. Personality wise I should have identified more with Elizabeth...the shy, sensible writer...but she was so boring and preachy and acted like a 45 year old in a (fabulously flawless) 16 yr old body. Jessica was a sociopath, but at least she was fun to read about. I also hated how they never left junior year of school. It wouldn't have bothered me so much if Francine Pascal's legions of ghostwriters hadn't kept slipping in multiple Christmases and proms and Halloweens and other major events that apparently happen 13 times a year in Sweet Valley. Yes, eventually the books graduated the twins to senior year and even college, but that was well into the 90's and I had moved on to Weetzie Bat.

I read an interview with Francine Pascal a few years back in Bust magazine that made me like her. One thing that always bothered me about FP is that before "creating" Sweet Valley, she wrote some books that were actually good. Remember these? Hanging Out With Cici, My First Love and Other Disasters, and Love and Betrayal and Hold the Mayo. These books center on Victoria, who is the polar opposite of a Wakefield. It's told in 1st person, so you never hear about Victoria being this 14 yr old bombshell. She just moans about her chicken legs and her knobby knees and her hair that never comes out right and her greasy skin and the huge pimple she just got. She fights with her mom, makes a fool of herself in front of boys she likes, stays out late and goes "too far" (wink and nudge), gets drunk at parties and even smokes a little pot. After finding those at the library, I couldn't handle the airbrushed world of Sweet Valley anymore. I wondered what the hell happened to Francine Pascal to make her sell out so hard. But in the interview, she actually comes across as a pretty down to earth person. I think she knows the books are terrible, but they made her a mint, so what can you do? She even made fun of Todd, calling him boring. Paraphrasing: "So we got rid of him and gave Elizabeth a new boyfriend who was just as boring. But all the readers wanted us to bring back the first boring one, so we did." Damn! New respect for Francine! I guess that sums up Sweet Valley if you think about it...the readers are really the ones in control. If they miss Todd, the Captain Cardboard of Sweet Valley, he will move back home from Vermont, even if there was a Super Special edition in which he and Liz decided to just be friends. If they think Jessica is too bitchy, she will tone down, until they decide she's gotten boring, in which she'll get her bitch on again. If they're not going to buy that these "perfect" girls are a size 6 when Lindsey Lohan is a size 0, by god, the twins will drop a size!

Jessica DiMaio read far too many trashy series novels when she was a kid, and now enjoys reading other people's snarky nostalgia blogs about them.
You can read more of her stuff at

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