Revisiting Sweet Valley High as an Adult in 2022

Some people may define their guilty pleasure reading habits by choosing campy science fiction, mystical creature-human love stories, or smutty dime romances.

Kudos to them. I say read what you want to read, because I have a guilty pleasure, too.

My guilty pleasure books take place in an idyllic small California town, where the Pacific Ocean waves are calm, the sun rarely ever hides under clouds, and high school antics are the center of everything. A cheery theme song plays each time I open these books to revisit two gorgeous California twins who may share the same physical traits but are unique in personalities. Their perfect bodies, fun personalities, and twin connection carry them through each book. These guilty pleasure reads are 150 pages of small scrapes, misunderstandings, and schemes, all resolving at the end to ensure that these twins’ lives are once again wrapped in a pretty aquamarine bow, the same color as their eyes.

That’s right. I’m talking about the Sweet Valley High book series created by Francine Pascal.

Comfort Reading at Its Best

Sweet Valley High took the 1980s young adult reading scene by storm. Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are 16-year-old twins whose lives were an 80s sitcom on paper. Elizabeth, the elder of the twins, is thoughtful, kind, and smart, and she dreams of being a writer one day. Jessica is the brash, impulsive, enigmatic younger twin who often relies on her twin to help her get out of the trouble Jessica has created for herself.

The SVH series followed a standard format across 100+ books:

  • The introduction to the twins, their family and friends, and their community
  • A hint of trouble either within the Wakefield home or with another Sweet Valley High student
  • Escalating drama, usually amplified by a misunderstanding or a nemesis of the girls
  • A resolution to the problem, usually instigated by one of the twins or their friends swooping in to save the day, meddle in someone else’s business, or host a party

Look. These books cannot be classified as great literature. The writing is formulaic. The characters are vanilla and representation is miniscule. The plots rarely thicken beyond a bad day or situation that can’t be resolved in 150 pages. But, I loved them as a naive preteen in the early 1990s, and any reader will most likely tell you that it’s a special experience to revisit a book from their childhood.

Reading Sweet Valley High as an Adult

When I first found an SVH book by my cousin’s bedside table, I thought that Elizabeth and Jessica were the epitome of perfection. They and their friends were so popular, so pretty, and so privileged. I wanted to be a perfect size 6 blonde with a gorgeous boyfriend like Todd, a rich BFF like Lila, and a cuddly dog like Prince Albert. Sweet Valley High is one of the series that got me into reading alone as a child. And there’s something nostalgic about going back to read them when the world feels a bit too hard as an adult.

Reading a Sweet Valley High novel is like watching a favorite sitcom from my childhood. As I said, there’s some bit of nostalgia and comfort in knowing that whatever difficulties Elizabeth and Jessica face, it will all be resolved before the end of the book. This spring has been a challenge for me, so I needed quick comfort reads and picked up a couple of the books from Kindle Unlimited. Yes, I felt the nostalgic twinge as I started reading, but by the middle of Too Much in Love, I was done. These books just don’t hold up in 2022.

Much like 1980s teen tv shows, diverse characters are relegated to the sidelines, unless the installment is a very special episode. The main cast of characters are cisgendered Caucasians with solidly upper middle class families. Any variation outside of that showcases the white privilege that Elizabeth and Jessica have. Skin color, parental divorce, learning disabilities, low socio-economic status, body issues, and all ranges of “other-ness” are called out amongst the twins’ ironclad circle of influence.

Everything is resolved within one book until we get to the classic mini-series special edition books. Yes, there’s death, there’s drug abuse, there’s disordered eating. However, nothing is too big of a challenge for Elizabeth and Jessica, and the latest drama becomes a no more than a brief mention in the following book.

I can’t say that I’ll never return to Sweet Valley High when I need a break again, but I definitely looked at these characters and these plot lines through a different lens this time.

Do you have a guilty pleasure reading habit? Or, do you ever revisit books that you loved as a child or teenager?

I love to take myself back to the perfect world of Jessica and Elizabeth Wa

The Popcorn Incident

Let me tell you a story about one of my most embarrassing moments, one that has been with me since I was in elementary school.

One night, I think Mom and Dad wanted to go out on the town, so they left me and a friend at the YMCA for a movie night. We sat on a sticky floor surrounded by strange kids who’d also been signed up for this event as a ruse to give their parents a break, and we stared at a television set that looked like it had been rolled in from a nursing home. As kids chomped on popcorn and drank too much sugary soda, I could feel these strangers’ eyes boring down on me because I was the only person out of 5 billion people in the world in 1989 who hated popcorn.

I was also fat, so I was an anomaly to the others as I wasn’t eating from a greasy bag of buttered kernels that smelled to me like socks. Two girls sitting a few feet from me zeroed in on this situation and started to throw those stale bits of popcorn at me. “Eat, you pig. You know you want to. You sure are fat,” they whispered in voices that sounded harsher than any other fourth graders’ voices I’d ever heard.

I tried to hold in the tears that started to push at my eyelids. I could feel my face burn with embarrassment. I would have rather peed my pants than have those girls call me fat in public. I wanted to run, to find an adult, to see my dad, but I couldn’t move because it’s not possible to get up off the floor while being fat after bullies have called you out for being fat. My friend was my hero. She gave them the fourth-grade death glare and said, “Shut up, bitches,” adding in a swear word because when you’re nine you can do that. Her parents ran the bar in Brunswick, so she was very worldly and knew how to cuss someone out in 47 different ways.

I made my friend promise not to tell anyone about those bullies at the YMCA Movie Night. I don’t know that I even said anything to my parents when they picked us up. I just sat in the backseat and felt what had already become repetitive in my nine years on Earth–my body was revolting; therefore, I was not good enough. Strangers had seen my weakness in the chub that rested around my belly, and they’d pounced. That night was more evidence that I was simply wrong.

My Bookish Body

I’m at a loss with my body. I want this new installment here will be a way for me to chronicle these challenges and to find some kind of accountability to make changes. This is the first time I’ve publicly documented the scale’s reports, the embarrassment and self-hatred of feeling out of control. This is my unapologetic truth. Be kind, readers.

I spend a large portion of my life focused on my body: hating it, condemning it, shaming it. This has been a constant in my life since childhood.

I am not a waif, I am not petite, and I am not delicate. I’ve wanted to be those bodies since I was 7 years old, the first time that I remember starting to compare my body type to my friends and family. My family’s obsession with health, my continued struggles with asthma, and my general sense of being other deeply impacted me then and continues to be a part of my internal narrative.

When I look back at my teenage years and think about that ugly voice inside my head, I realize I wasn’t as fat as I thought I was. Yes, I was bigger than my classmates, but I balanced out at a size 14 and had the boobs to carry it. I dressed well because my mom knew how to help me camouflage my problem areas and because we had the money to buy clothes that were stylish but fit well. I remained at a solid 162 pounds for most of my high school years, and at 5’7″ I was still well-proportioned.

College is when I started to pack on the pounds. After a bad breakup, I gained about 15 pounds, suddenly losing that high-end-of-average weight. And, did you know that bulimia really doesn’t help you lose weight? It’s an eating disorder for a reason. When you’re stuffing an entire large Papa John’s pizza down your throat and then vomiting it all back up on a nightly basis, your body recognizes that it’s not healthy and grabs every spare calorie it can.

Then next two decades were filled with yo-yo diets, extensive measures to limit my size, and failures. At 28 and pregnant, I gained nearly 100 pounds and then lost 60 after giving birth to my daughter. At 29 I packed on another 20 during and after my divorce, and then the scale went even further to the right. For the first time in years I could sneak eat without the fear of someone finding me in the kitchen late at night, stuffing peanut butter into my mouth. Spoon to jar, spoon to jar, spoon to jar. A repetitive motion of comfort eating while I faced loneliness, stress, and despair. I climbed closer to 270 pounds and compensated with plus-size clothing I purchased on credit cards. My climbing weight was one more example of failure.

Getting married again inspired me to lose weight the healthy way, but then that motivation disappeared after I wore my wedding dress. I finally lost weight at 38, but I didn’t do it in a healthy manner. Now, almost 4 years later, my weight continues to increase month-over-month. I’m working from home, so I no longer have a commute that keeps me walking. I binge eat regularly at night, searching for any high-fat, high-calorie morsel that will bring on the glazed eyes, distended belly, and blank mind that only food seems to create for me.

I’m desperate for the real motivation to make changes. As I’m now firmly set in my mid-life years, I know that taking care of myself is paramount if I want to have a healthy remainder of time left on this planet. But, the motivation is fleeting, and that continues the cycle of failure in my mind and body.

Does anyone else feel this way? Why am I like this? How do I get help?

The Glory of HOSAB

House of Sky and Breath by Sarah J Maas

A Five-Star Review (Minor Spoilers)

If you’ve been on Bookstagram or BookTok in the past two months, you’ve seen tributes to Sarah J Maas’s newest book, House of Sky and Breath, which is the second in her Crescent City. There’s good reason for this adoration, in my opinion. HOSAB is a great book – a long one too, clocking in at 800+ pages!

What I Loved about HOSAB

  • Bryce Quinlan and Hunt Athalar: This couple is end game. They’re complicated protagonists with a deep love for each other and a desperation to live a quiet, uneventful life together. Bryce is another one of SJM’s queens, right up there with Feyre (A Court of Thorns and Roses) and Aelin (Throne of Glass), and her tormented angel Hunt is just as great of a character.
  • The circle of supporting characters: Ruhn is my favorite side character in Crescent City. He is a classic bad boy with a heart of gold, and I am here for that journey. His friends Declan and Fynn give off vibes like Cassian and Azriel, another excellent entourage. We see more of Juniper and Fury, Bryce’s BFFs, and they are so good as well.
  • The world-building: I don’t know how SJM creates these fantastic worlds with multiverses and unique histories. My brain doesn’t work that way, so I have to be content with reading about them in books like this.
  • The representation: I have seen criticism of SJM’s previous series for the lack of diversity, and I agree. Bring on the diversity of characters, Sarah! HOSAB brings more representation to our eyes, and I hope that this prevails in future books.
  • The ending: I’m not going to spoil anything, but that ending! Wow. I had no inclination that SJM was leading us down that path. I went back and re-read the last chapter just to make sure that I read it correctly. Perfection!

Other Thoughts about HOSAB

  • In it for the long haul: Much like House of Earth and Blood (Book 1), this is a slow build to greatness with different points of view and more exploration of Midgard, the planet on which our story occurs. What does this mean? A heck of a long book. It took me about 3 weeks to read, with breaks for other books as I went along.
  • The steam: Audiobook lovers, I advise wearing earbuds with this one! HOEAB had some steamy scenes, but House of Sky and Breath brings the heat. I was blushing!

So, now I join the ranks of all the SJM readers who are impatiently waiting for the next book in the Crescent City series.

The Maid: Adventures with Molly

The Maid by Nita Prose
A 5-Star Book Review

It took me awhile to become engrossed in The Maid by Nita Prose, but once I did, I adored this book, primarily because of Molly, a unique protagonist with a penchant for telling the brutal truth and getting herself into troubling situations. Her character arc was full of growth and a satisfying conclusion.

Molly treasures her job as a maid at The Regency Grand. She takes pride in bringing hotel rooms back to “a state of perfection” and doesn’t let others’ behavior bother her too much. At the start of the book, she has made a tentative friendship with Giselle Black, the second wife of the unlikeable tycoon Charles Black, and is enamored by Rodney, The Regency Grand’s bartender. She helps Juan Manuel move from room to room at night as Rodney insists, and she is friendly with Mr. Preston, the doorman who had promised Molly’s recently deceased grandmother that he would look out for her.

Molly’s life is set to a highly orchestrated routine, despite losing her Gran and confidante. While money is scarce and loneliness plagues her at night, Molly embraces her role as part of The Regency Grand’s bee hive of workers. But when Molly discovers Charles Black dead in the hotel suite, her carefully scheduled routine turns sideways. Wrongly suspected of the murder, Molly must join together with this cast of characters to clear her name and right her world again.

A large portion of Molly’s growth comes from learning to engage with others. She is a very trusting person, determined to please others and to follow all rules. Without Gran as her anchor, Molly has difficulties reading social cues. There is no interpretation to what others say or do; she takes everything at face value. This isn’t ideal when she’s surrounded by characters with questionable motives.

Molly’s voice is fresh and unique. While Nita Prose doesn’t reveal any diagnosis, I suspect that Molly may have Asperger’s syndrome. Her thoughts, statements, and behaviors reminded me of Eleanor Oliphant, the protagonist in another amazing book Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I really appreciated this voice and representation.

The character development and plot resolution carry this book. It’s a fun, fast-paced read that I fully embraced. A five-star book for me!