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The Lessons of Sweet Valley High

August 21, 2012

I recently visited my hometown of Belleville, Illinois and had the interesting experience of “thrifting” with my parents. This was exciting for all of us, as when it comes down to it, we’re cheapskates. I mean, come on. This is a family that only eats at buffets and reminds one another to get fourth and fifth helpings to get our money’s worth. (Miraculously enough, not one of us is morbidly obese).

In one particular store, I discovered a treasure trove of abandoned Sweet Valley High books. Seeing those books on that dusty shelf whisked me back to not only all of my grade school years, but some high school years as well. The Sweet Valley series, which followed the scandals and exploits of identical twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, covered not only the blonde duo’s high school years, but also their grade school years (Sweet Valley Kids), middle school years (Sweet Valley Twins), and college years (Sweet Valley University). The series was created by Francine Pascal and most of the books were written by ghostwriters. They must have churned out at least forty books a year, and somewhere in NYC editors were high-fiving each other and making “ca-ching! ca-ching!” sounds because everyone got rich.

Even when I was a kid, I recognized that Sweet Valley wasn’t what someone would call “high quality literature.” No one would ever slap a Newberry Honor award on the cover of one, and any Literature teacher who assigned it to a class might want to reconsider her career path. But for me, it didn’t matter. When my mother gave me three dollars to spend during every Walmart visit, it was always on a Sweet Valley book. They were plain good fun – simple as that. Every single book followed a formula: 1) overarching plot involving shipwrecking/kidnapping/drugs/death/scandal, etc, which of course was nicely resolved in the roughly 130 pages of the novel; 2) a minor plot involving something less dramatic, and 3) a cliffhanger ending that had kids clamoring for the next book. Genius.

When I re-read these books during my hometown visit, I saw that they still had their charm. The dialogue was terrible and the adverbs rampant, but I didn’t mind. They were quick reads, fun, and I had to admire their perfect adherence to an effective formula. They illustrated to me that while books like The Cider House Rules, The Giver, and Flowers for Algernon are truly stellar novels, there’s something to be said for books that entertain. Sweet Valley High does just that. (As in, just that – nothing else).

I hope that as my writing career grows and develops, I don’t become a snob. I hope that no matter what, I can still enjoy books like Sweet Valley High. When it comes down to it, I owe that series part of my career. Reading literally three hundred books of a series when you are at an impressionable age will impact you as a writer and as a reader. Sweet Valley taught me about conflict and tension, story arcs, and how to draw a reader in. There’s something to be learned from almost every book one reads, and the halls of Sweet Valley High certainly taught me a lot.



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