April 5, 2008

reinventing the wakefields

Found this out on a Google link-fest. Are they actually inviting people who outgrew Sweet Valley sometime in the late '80s to ... come back?

(I'm so there.)

Some memorable books my mom bought me when I was a kid include Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (it sits on a shelf in my apartment, still patiently waiting to be read, and I never could get past the first paragraph, which contains the phrase "rusty wooden house" - if the house is wooden, what exactly is rusting?, I'd wonder in bewilderment); Tormont-Webster's Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary; Rabble Starky by Lois Lowry; AND - my very first Sweet Valley Twins book (Best Friends). Could I pick a sillier series with which to begin this blog? See the Doris Lessing quote at the top of this page.

I would like to call my younger self a nerd, but I was fair-to-middling in all elementary subjects except Language Arts, so I'll have to settle for calling myself a dork. I idolized the Wakefield twins because, try as I might, I had none of the qualities that made them so appealing. I was messy like Jessica, but wasn't popular, a good dresser, or a risk-taker. I was reserved like Elizabeth but wasn't a particularly good student, and got kicked off the elementary student paper because I never did my homework.

I read SVT and SVH for years. Everything seemed believable, probably because I had no social life to speak of until high school (and by high school, when I knew better, I was way over SVH.) Revisiting the books now, I can see that the twins look 35 on every cover, although they are supposed to be seventh graders and then high school juniors, and for the upper-middle class community they grew up in, they were spending way too much time unsupervised by adults.

But like the Baby-Sitters Club (a blog entry all its own), Sweet Valley has this rose-colored feel to it ... no matter how bad things got for Jess and Liz, everything would be okay. The old-school versions touched on drug use (cocaine, of course, because these are the '80s we're talking about), middle-school bullying, running away, and a host of other "universal" issues, but of course by the end of each installment, the problem was solved. Everyone was once again on talking terms, and the Wakefields sat down to dinner together, just before the next crisis popped up. There were specials with uber-farfetched storylines like Elizabeth getting kidnapped while working as a hospital candy-striper, both twins being terrorized by a psychotic spitting image of themselves, and Lila Fowler managing to foil her gold-digger would-be stepmother's wedding to her unsuspecting millionaire father. Yeah, most of the time the stories read like a bad soap opera, but that was the fun of it ... and it all seemed so plausible then. Well, maybe not the psychotic third twin, but I was totally enthralled by Lila's plot to trap her dad's girlfriend!

A major issue they never touched (while I was reading the series anyway) was sex and teen pregnancy. Interestingly enough, the early issues of SVH were much more risque than the later ones, say from #40 on. I remember being scandalized when (in #2, I think it was) Bruce Patman untied Jessica's bikini top as they swam in the lake. It was no Harlequin romance novel, but reading about Jessica's breasts made me blush. As the series progressed out of the '80s and into the '90s, so did the twins' image. Francine Pascal('s ghostwriters) made them less gold lame and more clean-cut. It'll be interesting to see exactly what changes have been made to revamp the series for today's post-9/11 readers, who still need entertainment but who would (hopefully) reject a Sweet Valley as shamelessly idyllic as that of the '80s and '90s.

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