So, Angélique Jamail created this fun quarantine bingo card the other day, and one of the squares that resonated most with me (besides the obligatory panic attack) was the one about spending embarrassing amounts of money (my words, not hers) on indulgent self-care gifts. Although each item was $10 or less, I guess you could say the total I’ve spent e-bay’ing and ThriftBook’ing trashy 90s kids’ paperbacks could count as one big self-care gift. I did get a few via curbside pickup at my library, because I have some self control.
Anyway, it’s about time I dedicated a whole post to my favorite spinoff in the Sweet Valley Universe. SVT may have been my first, but the Kids series was the one that truly sucked me into this bizarre, balmy utopia.
SPOILERS AHEAD for all the Sweet Valley Kids books. Also, there will be many exclamation points.
- 5 out of 5 life-changing sleepovers.
- Or: 5 out of 5 beach picnics that solve everything.
- Or: 5 out of 5 times Jessica tries to convince her classmates she REALLY DID see a REAL LIVE MERMAID and this REALLY ISN’T another Made You Look!
Sweet Valley playlist: Of course I made another Spotify playlist. Fill your funky retro headphones with the sounds of The Fiat Spiders from Mars! Yes, it’s mostly SVH-themed songs, but there are a few Easter Eggs for us SVT and SVK fans as well.
The Good Stuff
This series is so freaking wholesome! Yes, it still takes place in a literary snow globe or amber pendant (to paraphrase the BSCC timeline theory), in which the kids make the same mistakes and learn the same lessons over and over again (on the plus side, they get to celebrate Halloween five times in one year). But within that time loop, the twins actually have a healthier, more 3D, more overall-believable relationship! Liz actually stands up to Jess on a regular basis! Her flaws are more understandable and less hypocritical (if only because she’s seven and still figuring things out)! And even when she agrees to participate in some naughty scheme, she does it on her own terms!
Exhibit A: My favorite Liz moment thus far (more specifically, my favorite Sweet Valley ssssssun-BURN) happens in Crybaby Lois, when she finally gets fed up with Jess and Lila for being mean to Lois Waller. The latter two have convinced Lois to “prove herself” by climbing the neighbors’ apple tree to steal some apples for them (um, would Jess and Lila really go to all this trouble for something so boring and healthy?):
“Keep going,” Lila yelled. She nudged Jessica in the ribs and they giggled.
Elizabeth glared at them. “You can stop if you don’t want to go any higher,” she called up to Lois. “You already showed us you aren’t scared.”
“But she didn’t get any apples, Liz,” Jessica reminded her. “It doesn’t count unless she picks some apples.”
Elizabeth kicked a rotten apple toward her sister. “Eat this one,” she grumbled.
Conversely, Jess shows her heart and conscience on more than a few rare occasions, and for more than just self-centered reasons! She empathizes with other characters! She truly realizes the error of her selfish ways (at least within the microcosm of each book)! She apologizes genuinely (i.e. not just in a you-have-to-forgive-me-so-I-can-stop-feeling-guilty sense)!
Exhibit B: My favorite Jessica book (besides Jessica’s Mermaid, of course), is Jessica’s Secret Friend, in which she has a big fight with Lila, discovers a bottled letter floating at the beach, starts pen-palling with this mysterious lonely girl, realizes the writer is Lila herself, and then apologizes for hurting Lila’s feelings — even though, this time, it was an honest accident! It’s such a cute friendship story with an adorable twist and a heartwarming resolution.
On top of all that, the Wakefield parents play a more active role in their offsprings’ lives! Sure, they’re pretty lenient overall (the twins realize this explicitly when they spend a day with Lois and her mother; unlike the twins, Lois doesn’t feel comfortable just asking her mother for whatever she wants whenever she wants it), but they actually try to keep tabs on their kids, and dole out punishments when appropriate!
Exhibit C: When the twins “borrow” a fancy tea set from their mother’s friend’s house, and then lose a piece in some bushes, Mrs. Wakefield makes sure Jessica participates in the apology.
“Stop crying, Jessica,” Mrs. Wakefield said in a brisk voice. “You should apologize too. Don’t make your sister do it all by herself.”
(The Missing Tea Set, pg. 58)
Fun fact: Back in fifth grade, I made a diorama of Jessica and Elizabeth playing with the tea set for a book report. I used an actual vintage tea set my dad brought over from Colombia. With permission, of course. And with my mom supervising the diorama’s journey to and from school.
Anyhoo, even when Ned and Alice seem to be letting their kids get away with the most ridiculous hijinks, they’re usually doing it with a very deliberate sense of humor. What other parents would let their kids set up a life-sized roller coaster in their backyard, leave the clean-up and crowd control to them, and then pretend not to mind the “neighbors'” oddly misspelled complaint letters just so the kids could learn a lesson about responsibility and admitting defeat?
The Delicious Eyerolls
Of course there are plenty of just-plain-ridiculous moments, too. The books wouldn’t be half as much fun without them. Like those times you can tell a particular episode was either written by a different ghostwriter (who didn’t bother reading the previous books) or that “Molly Mia Stewart” was getting bored and trying something new.
Exhibit A: Elizabeth agrees to star with Jessica in a cable TV show run by a cartoonishly ruthless director who doesn’t seem to realize how to deal with child actors (or how to create an actually watchable TV show). I’m guessing, by this point, the overlord Francine decided the Kids books needed to more closely match the style and drama of SVH?
First of all, the usually-sensible Alice drops off her seven-year-old daughters. At the studio. All by themselves. And then leaves them alone with an adult she knows nothing about. Because this is kid-friendly Sweet Valley, where there’s no such thing as Stranger Danger.
Second, did I mention this director thinks Reality TV means having two seven-year-olds sit still in front of a camera, telling mildly embarrassing stories about their friends (for the “spice”), but then yanking the show as soon as the drama gets actually interesting (tell me you wouldn’t instant-replay a video of adorable twins fighting about the alphabet)?
Third, apparently the ghostwriter decided to shoehorn a flaw into Liz’s do-gooder personality by making her develop an overnight case of rockstar-itis. I mean, if you’re a kid who’s never been interested in showing off, and only grudgingly agreed to do the show, and are generally into being kind and moral…why wouldn’t you let a little praise flip your personality? Why wouldn’t you agree to make fun of your friends on live TV? Why wouldn’t you say mean things to your friends’ faces the next day? That’s just how fame works, right?
I guess when you’re cranking out a new book every month, and don’t expect much brainwork from your readership, you decide to skip the subtlety. What matters is that you teach kids an easy lesson about the Fame Monster, right?
Exhibit B: So, remember when I said the Wakefield parents were normally pretty savvy about keeping their kids safe, but also letting them learn from their own mistakes? Apparently, their sense of balance got a little warped by the time the series reached its fake-out finale (book 66 was supposed to be the end of SVK before it rebooted as the “new and exciting” Welcome to Sweet Valley…I guess either the readers cried foul or the writers couldn’t figure out a new concept in time…or maybe they just got superstitious about ending a wholesome kids’ series on the number 66).
So, if you found out your seven-year-old daughters walked downtown alone, crossing a major street you’d always told them never to cross by themselves, and lied to a DJ about their ages to get free stuff, would your ultimate plan be: (A) Ground the girls; (B) Sit them down for a talk about safety and ethics; or (C) Trick them into going back to the station by themselves to win a second prize, just to see if they’ll crack this time and admit they lied, so you can reward them with a trip to an amusement park?
This is Sweet Valley, remember? Of course it’s C. Oh, but don’t worry — Ned secretly follows the girls in his car, just to make sure nothing bad happens. Because he’d totally have time to jump out if he saw any reckless drivers or would-be kidnappers headed their way. And, to be fair, he and Alice were already planning the amusement park trip before all this, so…maybe they couldn’t get their tickets refunded?
What the WHAT was with Lila’s Christmas Angel? I mean, there’s wholesome and then theres saccharine. This was pure syrup. It’s like the ghostwriter wanted to test out their Touched By an Angel Jr. concept and decided to switch the original manuscript with their screenplay. And Francine was feeling either particularly generous or particularly rushed that Christmas, so she just rubber stamped it.
Great-aunt Helen is the best. I don’t even care if she appeared out of continuity (wasn’t Alice’s mother an only child, according to the Wakefield Saga? Or did her grandfather re-marry?); this impishly badass lady knows how to turn a crisis into a party game. Unicorn scavenger hunt, anyone?
Speaking of instant personality changes, it apparently goes the other way, too. Maybe the twins’ magical tears finally cracked Mrs. Taylor’s cranky heart and reminded her of her own delightfully deviant youth? Too bad it doesn’t work on grouchy Gladys, the housekeeper. Maybe if we sing that creepy flower song from Tangled, it’ll work better?
This is Sweet Valley at its sweetest. The twins aren’t sociopaths, the bullies have layers (sometimes), and the messages are So. Freaking. Wholesome. Yeah, there are still a few potholes along this stretch of Ventura Highway. Some of the characters look down on Lois for being “chubby.” Mrs. Otis is a bit too subtle when dealing with bullying (when she actually notices it).
Aaaand this isn’t a very diverse town. The two POC characters who do get their own story arcs (Eva and Kisho) are treated as totally integral to the community, though (in Goodbye, Eva? the twins and friends spend the whole book coming up with schemes to keep Eva’s family from moving back to Jamaica), and their story arcs have nothing to do with race (which isn’t even mentioned; the book Left Back! does have a nice discussion about immigration, though). But overall, this world is more than Mostly Harmless. If you’re looking for some really fluffy, escapist fun, I totally recommend this drive down the 90stalgia Coast!