‘"Look at that!" Elizabeth Wakefield had been dreamily staring up at the sky, her head on Todd Wilkins’s shoulder, her long, golden-blond hair falling onto his chest. She sat up and pointed through the windshield of the BMW at the brilliant light streaking through the night sky. "It’s a shooting star!"
Todd squeezed her hand. “The perfect ending to a perfect night.”’
The opening lines of Francine Pascal’s latest series, Sweet Valley University, have it all - glamour, romance and a hint of opulence; the stuff dreams are made of, all set in a seemingly neverending Californian summer and a continuation of the highly successful Sweet Valley phenomenon that attracts over 50,000 readers every month in the UK alone.
I can remember when the first Sweet Valley title, Double Love, was published in 1984. There were several ‘teen series’ around at the time, notably Sweet Dreams, Romances and Heartlines. Like many children’s librarians I was overwhelmed by the demand for these and the new Sweet Valley titles from teenage girls who had never previously used a public library. I can also recall a marked reluctance on the part of many librarians to stock the new series, which were dismissed as ‘pulp fiction’. Caught between an immense pressure from our newly acquired borrowers and a moral dilemma (largely self-imposed) borne of the traditionalistic view that we should be providing what teenagers ought to read and not necessarily what they actually want, I made a bold decision - to sit firmly on the fence. I would stock Sweet Valley in the hope that, having lured my unsuspecting public into the library, I could persuade them to borrow ‘proper’ books (whatever they are!). Picture the scene - ‘I’m sorry, Tracy, all the Sweet Valley books are out, have you tried Dickens?’ Dream on!
Sitting in my children’s library in North London all those years ago I truly believed that Sweet Valley would be another five-minute wonder; a passing phase in a fickle youth culture. Well, we all make mistakes.
Francine Pascal visited the UK last year to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Sweet Valley - now one of the most enduring series. I spoke to her on the last day of her week-long tour when she visited Greenwich to talk to an enthusiastic audience of 11-13 year-olds.
With impressive originality, I began the conversation by asking why she thought Sweet Valley was so successful, and like a true professional she responded with genuine enthusiasm as if she’d never been asked that particular question before.
‘I was a very optimistic teenager,’ she says, ‘and my conflicts were the stuff of everyday teenage trauma - loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, honour, truth and love. I think the books appeal because teenagers today are still an idealistic breed.’
Francine Pascal originally created Sweet Valley for television, and when this idea was not successful she revamped it into what she describes as ‘a teenage soap opera in book form’. She draws a great deal of inspiration not only from her own memories of growing up in New York, but also from her three grown-up daughters, her grandchildren and friends. Perhaps it’s the universal themes that emerge from these collective experiences that hold the key to the continuing success of the series - and explain why Francine receives over 1,000 fan letters a week from as far afield as Russia and Indonesia. Peer pressure, boyfriends, parents, school, looks and fashion and sibling rivalry are not only universal themes but are also, of course, the major sources of trauma which exclusively confront succeeding generations of teenage girls.
A predominantly female audience of 150 fans from Greenwich listened quietly to Francine, with the kind of rapt attention not normally displayed at 4pm on a Friday afternoon. She must have described a hundred times before how the series came to be written, the underlying philosophy and how many copies are sold by her publishers, Transworld, every week; yet she clearly still enjoys Sweet Valley and gives her readers tantalising glimpses of more to come.
When a response was invited from the audience, I was really impressed by the detailed knowledge of Sweet Valley these young people possess - the kind of in-depth analysis that’s more usually associated with set novels at A-level. The questions were searching and intelligent, and I must confess that the true extent of my misjudgement of the series was brought home by the realisation that there are very few subjects Francine Pascal is not prepared to tackle. Racism, drug abuse, anorexia, teenage pregnancy, suicide and death are just a few of the themes dealt with over the years, and dealt with effectively it seems. These teenagers remember it all, just as they remember the gentle morality which, though never intrusive, clearly guides the actions of the heroines, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, and the many other characters who occupy their world. If a mistake is made there are repercussions, if a character is wronged they get hurt - Francine Pascal admits that each title has a ‘hook ending’ to keep the reader coming back for more, but the endings are not necessarily happy; a welcome touch of realism in the land of golden sunshine, convertibles and beautiful people.
This land, represented by the posters, balloons, banners and T-shirts in the Sweet Valley livery of pink and yellow which bedecked the Jacobean mansion in Charlton, SE7, where I met Francine Pascal, seemed, initially at least, somewhat incongruous. So, too, did the all-American refreshments of popcorn and fruit juice cocktails - complete with cherries and paper umbrellas. These are the inevitable spin-offs from a successful idea, and it would still be easy to dismiss Sweet Valley as the kind of lightly-whipped confection that teenagers can safely digest between real books if one didn’t have the hard evidence of success and commitment from both creator and consumer alike. The truth is that for many teenage girls, Sweet Valley books form their staple reading diet and Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are their friends.
For the few boys in the audience, grouped defensively in one corner in a ‘go on - impress me’ kind of way, the event was obviously a little baffling. They had volunteered to be there, and they listened - perhaps won over by the sheer enthusiasm of the speaker; but the world of Sweet Valley is not for them. It was created for girls, and is aimed at, and read by, girls.
As Francine herself says, ‘I wanted to do something for teenagers that was inside their world... a microcosm of the adult world where teenagers are in control and the action is driven by girls.’
From the first Sweet Valley title, which was based on the concept of a 13-year-old girl not getting on with her mother, to the latest in which our heroines leave home for the first time, this philosophy remains unchanged - and why not? ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’
Sitting by an open fire in this impressive setting (and, yes - nibbling popcorn), I put away my carefuly prepared questions - each as staggeringly unoriginal as the first - and simply listened. I’d intended to pursue the Sweet Valley phenomenon doggedly to the bitter end so that you, dear reader, might share with me the secret of its success. I now realise it’s futile to attempt such in-depth analysis - it works, it has worked for ten years and it will probably continue to work for many years to come. Teenagers are electing to read it in the face of tough and varied opposition from computer games to Neighbours and we should be glad of it.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will come from Sweet Valley’s own TV series, which began filming in America last year and may soon be shown in this country, though I have great faith in Francine’s devoted fans, her continued inspiration and her dedicated team of writers. Personally, I can’t wait for Sweet Valley ‘Forty-somethings’ - as the twins approach middle-age and discover the trauma of peer pressure, sibling rivalry, parents... and, of course, how to encourage their own children to keep on reading.
Over 100 Sweet Valley High books have been published, of which around 75 are still available in paperback from Transworld.
Sally Saunders is an Education Librarian with the Project Loans Service of the London Borough of Greenwich.