READ & WRITE: Sweet Valley High
My favorite game I played as child was 'Shop.' When playing shop, a turned over laundry basket became the cashwrap and the entire living room my store. Dad's rack of seldom-used suits and dorky pleated slacks were drug up from the laundry room, becoming my merchandise. Dog -eared Eddie Bauer catalogs; salvaged from the recycling bin, were fanned out around an unplugged rotary phone and here, at my post behind my laundry basket, is where I sat patiently waiting for my only customer -- my Dad-- to enter and perhaps buy something.
I charged premium prices at my shop and when asked for something I did not have, I'd point towards the catalog and instruct him to dial the 1-800 number on the back.
I got a bit older, and played ‘shop’ less, replacing this imaginary game with weekly trips to the library. I have always judged books by their covers, and so of course the first chapter book I ever picked out for myself was from a series called ‘Sweet Valley High” and it looked like this:
Sweet Valley High is a series of books chronicling the lives of identical blond twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Elizabeth (bookish) and Jessica (boy-crazy) live in the fictional, perfect town of Sweet Valley, California -- along with a slew of slightly less good-looking, rich girlfriends and an ever-revolving cast of cute boys -- who are never not interested in them.
Originally published in 1983, with over 150 books in the series, Sweet Valley inspired multiple spin-offs, including Sweet Valley Twins, The Unicorn Club, Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Senior Year, and Sweet Valley Universitybut I always thought those last two –especiallySweet Valley University – sucked.
Those Sweet Valley High books were perfect digestible bits of rose-colored drama and I devoured them with an intensity and ease I have seldom experienced. Elizabeth and Jessica had problems, sure – but their problems were cute and all of the action was accompanied with heavy doses of blond hair flipping and vigorous boy-chasing. I always closely identified with Elizabeth – not only because we share the same name, but also because of our shared, albeit somewhat secret passion for writing.
Each Sweet Valley book was a new drama --- but the story arc that tied everything together was always Elizabeth Wakefield’s on-off relationship with Todd Wilkins, the tall, handsome captain of the Sweet Valley High basketball team. Originally pursued by both Elizabeth and Jessica, Todd does indeed fall for Elizabeth, and they began steadily dating in ‘Double Love.’ Sharing many of Elizabeth’s intellectual pursuits, including writing, Todd was always caught in some existential tug of-war between basketball – his identity and obligation– and his secret passion -- prose. Theirs was a courtship marked by a constant ‘will-they or won’t-they’ tension that drove me on my bike to that library on many a weekend. In fact, Elizabeth and Todd broke-up, got-back-together, and cheated on each other with a stunning level of endurance and melodrama. One particularly gripping title found Elizabeth Wakefield (and myself!) stunned to discover that Todd had been having a recurring affair with Elizabeth’s busty twin sister, Jessica for quite some time. In Sweet Valley Confidential, -- which, yes, I did in fact read -- we discover, in a sort of ‘Where are They Now?’ way that Todd eventually married Jessica, that together they had a son named Jake, and that he turned his herculean yet previously disparate talents for lay-ups and lines of prose into a successful career as a syndicated sports journalist.
At the back of each Sweet Valley book there was always a coupon for Bonnebell Lipsmackers, or a subscription offer for Seventeen Magazine, and whenever I finished one, I felt very, very, adult.
Finally finished with the effervescent adventures of my favorite well-to-do and well-endowed blond twins, I moved on to the serialized, modernized Nancy Drew series. These were on the same shelf as the Sweet Valley books. Dad would always try and get me to read the ‘original’ ones – with their iconic yellow spines and campy illustrations of Nancy illuminating the cockles of some spider-webbed attic – but I consumed the trashy contemporary ones with stunning ferocity. Here, Nancy Drew mysteries were set and solved circa 1991, and as such our heroine could be found using the modern convenience of dial-up Internet and a beeping modem to look up public records and encrypted files, smuggling floppy disks full of incriminating evidence inside her purple Jansport. This was a reality much more relateable to me, so I stuck with what I knew, classics be damned.
Unlike the Sweet Valley High books I read with fangirl obsession, these Nancy Drew mysteries were a bit more innocent -- much more pure of heart, if you will. Our heroine’s father lived alone, and could often be found in his study, reading, always ready to offer some polished nugget of good advice. Nancy chased leads and shady bad guys instead of boys. After school, she sat in the corner booth of her favorite diner, milkshake and crazy-straw in-hand, pushing a lock of strawberry blonde hair behind one ear and turning to a fresh, white page in her ever-present spiral-bound notebook.
Determined, sweet, and maybe a little naïve, here was a girl who wanted justice in this world and she could bring it -- especially with a chocolate lab (appropriately named Chocolate Chip) by her side.
Inspired by my new favorite heroine Nancy, on days between Saturday library trips I would walk the quiet streets of my neighborhood, notebook and a pair of opera glasses in hand, willing something—anything -- interesting to happen.
I would find what I thought to be an inconspicuous spot to sit, and like Nancy, turned to a new page in my notebook. This was a very important first step. At the top of the margin: the time, date, day of the week, and the day's chosen spy location were written. Below, a few lines of observation -- usually beginning with the weather, oftentimes embellishing my observations for dramatic effect when the daily beat got too boring, and then eventually meandering into my own thoughts. I filled up a handful of notebooks this way, can still remember what they looked like. The first -- a journal covered in photos of cats. The second, a classic black and white composition book -- just like Harriet the Spy. The third, fourth, and fifth were all plain spiral-bound situations. These were adopted so as to appear more inconspicuous, and also because in the Nancy Drew books I read, that’s what she used -- starting a new notebook at the start of each mystery, closing the cover firmly once justice had been served – usually in under ninety-three pages.
When I was young, I dreamed of one day owning a shop, one with catalogs and real merchandise and many customers -- hopefully still including my dad. I also dreamed of being a writer. It sounded like a perfect job, this writing. You could do it from anywhere, one. Two, you didn’t need a team of people or a specific place to do it. I liked that it seemed moveable, transportable, efficient, and private. Thirdly, writing could be done with very few tools. A spiral-bound notebook, a pen, a place to sit. I could be like Harriet, like Nancy – living a life of daring-do and tomboy swagger, chocolate lab by my side, and perhaps a tempestuous on-again, off-again relationship with my very own type of Todd Wilkins.
What would my ten-year-old self think if she saw me today, twenty-four? I think her lower lip would wobble a little as I told her that I still don’t own a shop. And if she were to ask me if I was a writer yet, I think she would maybe start to cry when I told her no. This troubles me, this vision of a ten-year-old Elizabeth disappointed in my twenty-four-year-old self. But maybe she would brighten when I told her that semi-weekly I do bare my soul to the internet. And I think she would begin to smile beatifically when told that one no longer needs to leave and make themself a sandwich while waiting for a webpage to load.