Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Sweetest Reads

Thought I'd forgotten about my 30 days of books list? Um, yes I had.So without further ado let's delve back into the bliss of reading with my picks for the "Best Young Adult book". I confess, when I see people reading Harry Potter on the train, I'm always tempted to point out "You're reading a children's book!" in mocking tones, particularly if they've deliberately chosen the "grown-up" cover. But really, no matter what anyone says, there ain't no shame in reading a teen paperback. 

I love the delicious creepiness of Lois Duncan's back catalogue; Summer of Fear is such a perfect little chiller that I'm making notes on it for future reference. (In terms of novel-structuring I'm pretty sure it would beat any number of non-fiction how-to guides.)

But for true all-time-favourites, it's got to be the world of Sweet Valley High.

I first started reading these little gems when I was about 12: they are trash of the very highest form.

"Have you heard the dialogue the women characters on the soaps are given? They never use their brains! They misunderstand everything that anyone tells them, and they jump to absurd conclusions about the very people they should KNOW they can trust. It makes me sick to watch them."

So says Elizabeth Wakefield, when offered the opportunity to audition for a soap opera with her twin sister Jessica. Of course, Jessica concocts a scheme to force her to audition; they get the parts and spend a week attending swanky Hollywood parties, before returning to school with the brand new Jeep bought with their earnings. Then normal school life resumes, with regular misunderstandings, accusations of betrayal, and sudden relationship breakdowns. Could the writer "Kate William" be poking a teeny bit of ironic fun at our girls with this diatribe?

Jessica and Elizabeth are the most beautiful, perfect, lucky (albeit prone to sudden kidnaps and accident-prone loved ones) 16-year-olds who have ever lived. As these books never tire of informing us, Elizabeth is quiet and studious, had ambitions to be a writer, and prefers to spend time with her close friend (Enid the nerd) or her steady boyfriend (she always has one). Jessica, meanwhile, is wild and crazy. She's so wild and crazy, she has painted her bedroom chocolate brown, she often has clothes all over the floor, and she prefers shopping and sunbathing to studying. (Shocker!)

What the books tend to gloss over is the fact that Jessica is pretty much a psychopath: she has zero conscience, and will do anything to please herself even if involves stabbing her own sister in the back, lying, stealing, cheating etc. (Francine Pascal, the creator of the series, prefers to think of her as being a little bit mischievous).

Elizabeth is always described as being abnormally good, but despite her apparent devotion to whichever boyfriend she has (good old Todd Wilkins is the main man, although Jeffrey replaced him briefly when he (sob!) moved temporarily to Vermont), she has absolutely no hesitation in cheating on him, on a semi-regular basis. Every time she goes on holiday with her sister (which happens with alarming regularity for one school year) she finds a new beau and will have perhaps a moment's thought about how she misses poor Todd before she embarks on a torrid affair. No matter how many times this happens, it is always described as being something unusual and out of character for the "fair, honest and dependable" little angel of Sweet Valley. She's only four minutes older than Jessica, but "sometimes it felt more like four years!"

Francine Pascal originally pitched the idea of the Sweet Valley community as a TV show, but her idea was turned down and she was advised to write books instead: the rest is history. Sweet Valley, California is described as being the perfect place to live glorious sunshine all year round, beaches, lakes, shopping malls and cool little cafés and discos. The kids always go to the Dairi burger after school for skinny chicks, they sure do eat a lot. (They must spend half of their allowance on burgers.)

The books are a mix of everyday school life (albeit an improbably glamorous one) and slightly more zany stories being lost at sea, foiling kidnappers, crashing airplanes, and winning nationwide competitions every so often.

Despite their silliness (or perhaps because of it?) these books have been popular since the 1980s (when they were first published) and were relaunched with an "updated" feel  in 2008. Would this mean all references to Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford being removed and replaced with Robert Pattinson and Ryan Gosling? Surely not half the pleasure in these books is that they're of their time. (Jessica wears neon plastic earrings and leg warmers, and Elizabeth's favourite movie is Romancing the Stone.)
Don't forget those fabulous 80s fashions!

However, a peek at the re-edited versions on Amazon would indicate that they've been not so much "updated" as completely rewritten, which seems weird and sort of pointless. The only major era-giveaway from the original books is that nobody has a mobile phone, but as many of the twins' disasters are caused by not being able to get hold of someone, these storylines would need some severe tweaking anyway. (Maybe Sweet Valley would have to become a barren wasteland of lost signals and dead batteries instead.) I was also disgusted (in the style of the Simpson's comic book guy) to find that the twins had shrunk from their former "perfect size six" to a four. (I suppose we should be thankful that they weren't changed to "perfect size zeros" with lollipop heads.) 

Elizabeth may be a straight-A student and is allegedly intelligent, but she's not quite bright enough to figure out that her sister is a manipulative little minx, and not to be trusted. Over and over again, she blindly believes whatever Jessica tells her, despite ample past evidence that she is a big fat (size six) liar. The first book in the series describes Jessica as "The most adorable, most dazzling sixteen-year-old girl imaginable." Which may be more convincing when you are reading it as an impressionable 13-year-old, because my current experience of 16-year-old girls is that they are neither adorable nor dazzling, unless you're really into duckface selfies. 

Reading a SVH book is, to me, the literary equivalent of listening to the Beach boys (or maybe Neil Sedaka.) The stories have the same atmosphere of sunshine and good clean, innocent fun, 1950s style. Even though the twins are teens in the 1980s, their lives resemble Happy Days more than Beverly Hills 90210. In California, the kids don't drink or take drugs; these are crimes which inevitably result in death (Pascal is pretty clear on her teenage morals), and even though the girls date a succession of 16-year-old boys, only one ever attempts anything more than kissing. He is swiftly dispatched to the Youth counselling project for his abnormality. (I'm not kidding!)

SVH books generally follow a format if the main storyline isn't about one of the twins, it will involve one of their classmates, who'll have a dire problem and confide in Elizabeth (even if they've never spoken to her before) while Jessica will provide the light relief in the side story, normally by being involved with a zany money-making / boy-attracting scheme which will backfire drastically, with "hilarious" results. 
Is it wrong that I really want to read this, given the enticing title and blurb?

The first 95 books are fairly standard school tales, but the mini-series leading up to the climax of the 100th book involves a deadly prom, a manslaughter charge for Liz, a dead boyfriend, and crazed murderer who happens to be identical to the twins, thus clearing the way for her to kill one of them and spend the rest of her life impersonating them. Winner!

I'm amazed that Francine has never been sued for plagiarism, for the books borrow freely from various films Thelma and Louise, All about Eve, The Truth about Cats and Dogs etc. She's also a little bit sensitive about the fact she didn't actually write the books, bristling that the stories were mapped out in a "paint-by-numbers" style for her army of literary minions to follow. The books were ghostwritten by a number of anonymous writers rumour has it (or, Wikipedia does) that some were Hollywood screenwriters. After the 100th book they gleefully veered off into the weird and wacky and lost the tenuous grip they had on reality: the twins are no longer worried about school tests, they are too busy hunting werewolves in London, defending their town from vampires, and becoming supermodels.

Numerous spin-off book series were produced to cash in on the series' popularity, not to mention the somewhat ill-conceived TV show in the 1990s. We have Sweet Valley Kids (aged 7), Sweet Valley Twins (aged 12), Unicorn Club, Sweet Valley Junior High, Senior Year, University. Francine Pascal personally penned the 2011 comeback series Sweet Valley Confidential (set when the twins were 26) and The Sweet Life (3 years later) but was ridiculed by fans who knew the stories better than she did and had no patience with manufactured shocks. (Just wait till Sweet Valley makes it onto Amazon's Kindle Worlds: I'll be all over it.) 

There were also special editions (which often created discrepancies within the series) and various family "Legacies" in which The Wakefield's (and their friends') ancestors first arrive in America, dance up a storm in the Jazz Age, take part in 1960's political sit-ins, etc etc. Love 'em or hate 'em, you've got to admire the ingenious money-spinner that is a series that can go on forever in numerous different directions.

The sublime book covers were painted by James Mathewuse. I know I was not the only teenage girl who derived great satisfaction from laying out all the books on the floor (in numerical order, of course) to admire them. The depictions of the twins and their friends were burned into my psyche and forever defined how I imagined them to look. Having checked out Mathewuse's website, I see he does portraits for a fee it is now my ambition to one day undergo a Sweet Valleyfication. (How sad am I??!!)

As these books probably influenced many teenagers around the world, it's fortunate that they at least attempt to promote positive messages. By creating an entire community of teenagers, most hot topics are covered: racial tension, the dangers of being mean sorority cheerleaders (you may h̶u̶r̶t̶ ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶'̶s̶ ̶f̶e̶e̶l̶i̶n̶g̶s̶ cause rejects to attempt suicide...) sibling rivalry, parental divorce, violence (occasional only), and I think maybe once a story revolved around that rarity, a teenager insecure about her looks.

There's even one character who thinks he might be gay. (And is rarely featured after that, but never mind.) Other storylines included a GIRL trying out for the football team (yes, you heard me right, a girl!), several car crashes (always caused by other people's drink-driving), and some accidents which cause inexplicable injuries temporary blindness, psychosomatic paralysis, even one for Elizabeth where she basically transforms herself into Jessica. (Of course, this is Jess's finest hour, as she has to be just as responsible as her twin normally is! Oh, the irony!)

One early-ish highlight of the series is "Miss Teen Sweet Valley" in which Jessica enters a beauty contest (if you have any doubt at all that she will win, you need to read MORE Sweet Valley books) and Elizabeth protests and tries to get the contest banned because "it's wrong to judge women on their looks". Which is a bit rich really, considering Francine never tires of telling us how stunningly perfect-looking everyone in the town is. Anyone who's considered unattractive undergoes a radical transformation (fat Robin Wilson, poor and scruffy Roger Barett) or is gradually dropped from the series and rarely heard from again. (Fat Lois Waller, poor and style-free Sally Larson).

The Wakefield parents are described as being perfect their mum is often mistaken for their sister, apparently, although this never actually happens in the books. They do need to step up the parental supervision though. Their children are forever being held hostage, attempting to elope, cheating on school tests, or being arrested. Still, at least Liz has turned out all right: she has a "special bond" with everyone from her siblings to pretty much every kid on school (after she has single-handedly averted disaster from their lives). 

However, her concern for others does make her a really boring date almost every time she and Todd go out, she will be quiet because she is worrying about some other kid in school, and Todd will just know something is wrong, and have to be manly and reassuring as only a 16-year-old boy can be. (Even Pascal has admitted he is dullsvillle.) But you're nobody at Sweet Valley High if you're single! The teens ALL have steady partners, so their high school dances somewhat resemble middle-class, middle-aged country clubs. 

                                                          But they did have the best theme tune!

Francine Pascal is a genius. While the 21st century high school series Gossip Girl essentially sticks to the same list of characters Blair is a cross between Jessica and Lila, Serena a more rebellious Elizabeth, Dan is Todd Wilkins, Chuck Bass is Bruce Patman etc –  putting beautiful twins right in the centre of the formula was inspired. As well as automatically heading up any social group they are in, there is no end of mix-ups, pranks and identity-swapping to fill out the stories. Jessica often pretends to be Liz in order to escape an awkward situation and Liz is often forced to impersonate Jessica to cover for the fact that her twin has left the house after curfew, is missing a school test, or occasionally for her own means. For instance, when she is caught cheating by her boyfriend. Kind of makes you wish you had a doppelganger to blame stuff on, doesn't it?

No wonder we all want to be a Wakefield twin!

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