What I'm relearning from Sweet Valley High

What I'm relearning from Sweet Valley High

OK, I’m going to start this post by saying that yes, I know Sweet Valley is not ‘real’ literature, it’s commercialised teenage rubbish that people have told me a ridiculous amount of times over the last twenty years that I shouldn’t be reading, but I’ve been obsessed with SVH since I was 9 and have actually learned a lot of life and social skills (really) from various characters in the series as well as having the ‘safety’ of an alternate fictional world which had characters I could relate to and ‘talk’ to (via Sims or writing) and this was really important to me as a teenager in a similar way to how I used Hogwarts pre-Voldemort as an escapist world.  Once Voldemort came back when I was in Year 9, Sweet Valley seemed a lot safer than Hogwarts and for years I carried a Sweet Valley book in my bag ALL THE TIME so I could read it whenever I wanted to.

Yes, Sweet Valley books aren’t written particularly well (overuse of adjectives, too many exclamation points, superficial writing style) but they’re accessible and easy to read which I think totally outweighs the actual style of the writing.  I’ve been able to read Sweet Valley books nearly my whole life, even when I’ve been feeling rubbish and had the concentration span of a hyperactive fly, and they don’t need a lot of focus or brain capacity to read.  They’re actually a lot more complex than most people realise thanks to being a series of close to 500 books in total, and you get to know the characters so well that you feel like they’re a part of your life.  And that means that, weirdly, you learn a lot from them and that changes throughout your life depending on who you can identify with at the time.  I might get struck down by the literature gods for saying this (especially since I did an English degree!) but I’ve actually learned more from Sweet Valley books and Harry Potter than from ANY book I’ve ever studied at school or uni and I think more people need to appreciate that there is more to ‘good’ books than heavy themes or symbolism.  Yes, that’s important and it’s good for analysing/studying, but sometimes learning real, applicable life and social skills and being able to relate to and feel safe with fictional characters is just as important and, for some people, can be even more beneficial.  I might be slightly biased considering I wrote my undergrad dissertation on Harry Potter, my MA and PhD on fairy tales and The Little Mermaid in particular, and one of my MA essays about Sweet Valley but I did the whole ‘literature’ stuff too and found it really interesting but nowhere near as useful for ‘real life’ than books I could really relate to and with complex, escapist worlds where I felt safe.  So that’s why I’m not embarrassed at all to say that I still read Sweet Valley books when I’m almost 30!  I’ll probably still be reading them at 50… :p

One of the things I really like about Sweet Valley books are that they’re set in the 80s- pre-internet and mobile phones which feels amazingly safe and there’s much less anxiety and paranoia because of it.  They write letters and call each other or arrange to meet at specific places and there’s none of the Facebook-based paranoia or bitchiness or problems with over-texting etc that there are now.  When I first started reading SVH, that was how the world worked but now technology’s taken over and there’s a lot more anxiety about than there was 15 years ago (for me, anyway).  I think one of the things I find ‘safe’ about Sweet Valley is that reading the books is like going back to the pre-internet world without the constant paranoia or anxiety of mobile phones and Facebook.  Although, ironically, the reason I can re-read the whole series now is because they’re available to download for free on Kindle Unlimited which is pretty incredible!!  When I was younger, I could only get the ones that hadn’t gone out of print yet from The Works or from charity shops, and I can still remember the MAGIC feeling of being able to order them from Amazon when that because feasible.  Now it’s even more accessible through Kindle which is genuinely amazing.  I was re-reading one of my exercise books from primary school where we had to write about magic inventions we wished existed and I wrote about a magic book which could become any book you wanted it to…I think it’s called a Kindle!!  BEST INVENTION EVER.

Anyway, back to Sweet Valley…  I’m about a third of the way through the SVH books at the moment and I’m just as hooked as I was when I was a teenager but in a different way.  The description of the twins still bugs me (sun-bleached hair, turquoise eyes, perfect size 6 figure) and it annoys me that all the characters seem to be “petite”, “slim” or “willowy” unless specifically mentioned as otherwise in which case it’s usually in a negative context but I think we just need to accept that this is ‘perfect world California’ and that’s not real anyway.  But weirdly, the perfectness of it is part of what makes it feel ‘safe’ and it really is a perfect escapist world.  When I was a lot younger, I used to want to paint the walls of my bedroom like Sweet Valley so I could feel like I was actually there and part of what I love about re-reading the books is that the setting is STILL THE SAME in my imagination.

The reason that’s weird is that it hasn’t changed visually at all since I was in primary school and it genuinely feels like revisiting an actual place from when I was younger.  I think it’s linked to brain processing- it’s something I really need to look into properly but I think that when you imagine something, your brain can’t tell the difference between reality and not-reality so you feel like you’re actually experiencing it and in general, this is stronger in children than adults and when you re-imagine something from when you were a child, it feels like an actual memory.  It’s definitely a topic I need to explore properly!  Would also be really interested to find out if it’s different in autistic brains than neurotypical- most people I know don’t have the same intense, almost physical recollections of memories/imagined events that I do or difficulty distinguishing imagined events and ‘real’ memories (I often think dream events have actually happened) but I don’t know if maybe I’ve just got an over-active imagination?!

Sweet Valley Middle School is visually almost exactly the same as my primary school and that’s still how I imagine it but the high school is a bit different- it’s partly based on the building my classroom was in in Years 7 and 8 and a lot of SVH classes (in my mind) take place there but it’s also mixed with the school field, lunchroom and library from primary school and a few extra corridors I seem to have made up in my mind but probably came from TV shows about high schools.  The front of the school is partly based on primary school but mixed with the front door from (I think) the school in The Princess Diaries so I have no idea how that happened!  It’s so weird revisiting it though because it really does feel like going back to an old school and I keep wanting to go to the Oracle office (which is the same as a classroom in my primary school) or go to find Olivia Davidson in the art room (which is the same as my secondary school).

The town is the same- the beach is like Sandbanks in Poole which was where we used to go on holiday when I was little, the shopping mall is the Royal Priors in Leamington except as is used to be before it was redone (complete with the peacock which anyone from near Leamington over the age of 25 will probably remember), Guido’s is basically Pizza Hut from Tower Park in Bournemouth, Casey’s is Henley Ice Cream shop…  They’re not exactly the same because some of the details from the books are mixed in with real-life places (the shopping mall is based on the Priors but the shops are from the books, the pizzas in Guido’s are bigger and more American than Pizza Hut, the beach has white sand and aqua water etc) but it’s amazing how your imagination basically works like a synthesiser using actual places and described details to make a whole new imagined world which is constant over time.  That’s what I love about re-reading book series or books you read over and over as a child- it’s still the same world.  I have a very similar experience reading Harry Potter but won’t go into that now, but it’s one of the reasons I don’t like seeing films of books because it’s never the same world and feels ‘wrong’.

The other awesome thing about Sweet Valley is the characters.  There are a few ‘main’ characters (Jessica and Elizabeth, Todd, Lila, Enid, Bruce) who appear in nearly every book but each book focusses on a particular, more minor character and something that’s happening in their life and because it’s a series, you get to know the characters so well by their appearances in other books that it’s nice to get a real look into the life of someone you’ve ‘met’ through other characters but don’t know a lot about.  Once you’ve read the whole series, you know most of the characters’ back stories and that’s nice too because when you re-read them, it gives you a whole new context.  My favourite character is Olivia Davidson who you don’t really get to know properly until quite late in the series (she’s just known as an arty, quirky sort-of geek) but in the special edition Mystery Date, she uses internet chatrooms as a way to meet people and you realise that she’s actually really shy and insecure.  I could relate to it a lot at the time because I used to use internet message boards as a ‘social life’ and it was nice to meet a character who had a similar experience.  It’s weird thinking about it now because SVH was originally set in the 80s and the internet didn’t exist then but because the writing went on into the 90s and early 00s, the internet was becoming more mainstream and a couple of the later books mention it although there are still no mobile phones or social media which I think would have ruined Sweet Valley for me.

Re-reading as an adult, you realise again how unrealistic and overly dramatic the books are (not even halfway through and we’ve had three kidnappings, two deaths, a plane crash, drugs, attempted rape, attempted suicide, depression and a ridiculous amount of teenage drama) but that’s what makes SVH so interesting and even though you know that no teenager would actually be able to experience all that and still have perfect mental health at the end of it, the way the books deal with each individual experience is surprisingly sensitive and well thought out.  It’s  bit unrealistic how quickly the characters appear to recover from whatever’s happened to them but the actual experience is pretty well described.  I remember as a teenager re-reading some of them over and over because I could relate to the characters strongly although at the time, I didn’t know why (Wrong Kind of Girl, The Perfect Girl, Too Much in Love and Alone in the Crowd are the ones that spring to mind straight away).  I’d be interested to read Sweet Valley book with an autistic character though- I know autism wasn’t particularly well understood in the 80s and Asperger’s didn’t even exist as a diagnosis but there are some characters who show strong autistic traits (Bill Chase, Randy Mason, Olivia Davidson among others) and it would be interesting to see them more accepted rather than ridiculed for being ‘different’.  But this is perfect world California 80s!

The other thing that really struck me when I started re-reading the books is how controversial they actually are in the topics they discuss.  Considering the books were aimed at a teenage/pre-teen audience (I was reading them from when I was 8 or 9), they deal with some pretty heavy topics and a lot of my first ‘exposures’ to things like mental health issues or drugs were actually via Sweet Valley books.  I know I’m not the only person who’s never even been tempted to try drugs as a result of Regina Morrow’s death after trying cocaine (see Regina Morrow is the reason I never tried cocaineThe death of Regina Morrow or just google ‘Regina Morrow’ and see what comes up) and that’s a pretty major positive effect on a lot of pre-teen lives.  The second link sums it up perfectly by saying “The death of Regina Morrow in Sweet Valley High #40 On the Edge influenced my life more than any other fictional event in the history of my entire reading career thus far. Twenty-five years after reading about her death, Regina is still the first person I think of when I hear about someone dying from a drug overdose.  ‘Oh, I think. He/She must not have read about Regina Morrow.’  Yes, my brain seems to believe that nobody would ever struggle with drug addiction if only they had read On the Edge when they were fifteen.”  I AGREE.  And anyone who says that Sweet Valley books are just ‘junk food’ for literature can f*ck off as far as I’m concerned.  The book series has genuinely changed people’s lives for the better and that’s not junk.

It’s not just drug use that’s addressed pretty directly- Jess’s boyfriend Christian is killed in a gang fight, her boyfriend Sam is killed in a drink driving accident (which was also the reason Elizabeth ended up in a coma after a motorcycle accident earlier in the series and both of these events have meant that I would never, ever get in a car with anyone who has had even a tiny amount of alcohol which has been my rule since I was a teenager and first read the books), John Pfeifer attempts to rape Lila Fowler and then sets fire to her house before being killed by one of his own bombs and so many other pretty controversial events.  Not just over-drama either- Tom McKay’s realisation of being gay was dealt with sensitively and would have been a pretty big deal in the 80s, and it’s amazing that Sweet Valley chose to write in a teenage, gay character.  The stigma is clearly shown as well as Tom’s feelings and that’s pretty impressive for ‘junk’ literature.

For me, the most intense storylines that really ‘got’ me as a teenager were the ones involving mental health issues.  They were never explicitly described as mental health issues in the books which was partly why they were so accessible I think, and it made it feel more ‘normal’ because characters you know and accept are experiencing similar issues.  The ones that really stand out are Robin Wilson’s struggles with weight and with eating disordered behaviour, Annie Whitman’s feelings of being cast out and attempted suicide and Lynne Henry’s experiences of depression.  Although they appear to be ‘cured’ unrealistically quickly, the actual experiences are really well described although brief, but trying to cram something like that into 137 pages is a pretty big ask!

Robin’s experiences are particularly interesting because her character has had so many ups and downs already by the time she developed an ED (weight problems and bullying, falling for George Warren then dealing with her feelings through food) that the plotline seemed to develop naturally from what we already know about her.  The book itself doesn’t go into too much detail (thankfully) about her actual ED thoughts although the line I remember clearly from reading it aged 12 was that her top tip for losing weight is “WATER” underlined several times and I went through a phase of drinking a bottle of water every lesson at school after reading that in case it worked (it didn’t, I just ended up needing the loo a lot!).  But what it does do is show a wider picture of Robin’s ED issues- not being able to eat in front of people, obsessive fixation on ‘safe’ foods, controlling behaviour and snappiness around other people, her jealousy around George, general obsessiveness, excessive exercise, constant exhaustion…  Even writing about it now, I can feel exactly how Robin felt and how I did as a teenager but without realising that’s why I related to the book so much.  Even though it’s very unlikely that Robin would have been that ill and not had to go into inpatient treatment, it’s still a well thought out book.

I could go on about mental health in Sweet Valley for ages and might save that for another blog post!  It’s also interesting that there are other, more complex mental health issues alluded to and shown in characters (Nancy the librarian’s sinister obsession with the 70s and trying to recreate it, John Pfeifer’s arsonist tendencies and sexual harassment/obsession, Margo’s delusional behaviour, Philip Denson the “messed up” ex-employee of Nicholas Morrow’s dad, John Marin’s attempts to kill the entire Wakefield family and probably a million others I’ve totally forgotten about.  It’s interesting how, as a ‘light’ teenage book series, it’s actually more psychologically complex than nearly any YA book out at the time and deals with such a massive range of issues.  Especially since in the 80s, a lot of mental health issues weren’t fully understood or known about which makes the depiction in Sweet Valley even more interesting and because it’s not given a ‘label’ or ‘diagnosis’, you’re given a real insight into that character’s thoughts and behaviours without judgement.  Even if the novels are ‘easy read’, 137 page long teenage books, they cover a lot of pretty intense topics without seeming forced or fake and that makes it more accessible and easy to relate to than if it were explicitly explained.

Will end the post now before I get totally carried away and write synopses of every book in the series!  Definitely more Sweet Valley posts to come…:)

Published by Alex Anderson

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