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

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