When I was in fifth grade, my family moved from the Northeast to Texas. I was a fish out of water in my new town, and I struggled to find my footing. It was one thing to have acne, braces, and headgear when I was surrounded by friends and the familiar. It was another thing entirely to move and have to start fresh surrounded by strangers.
Books became my salvation. Their characters became the friends I sought out after long lonely days of eating lunch by myself. I was 12 years old and I longed to meet my Ramona Quimby or my Sally J. Freedman. I’d have even settled for Ramona’s bossy and overbearing sister, Beezus. Yes, I was that lonely.
A few months after we moved to Texas, I discovered the Sweet Valley High books. And Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield immediately became my best friends.
I delighted in devouring the series that centered around the 16-year-old twins from southern California with their “perfect size six figures, heart-shaped faces, wavy blonde hair, and sparkling blue eyes.” Elizabeth was quiet and studious. Jessica was wild and tempestuous. And each book centered around a drama that was resolved in 200 pages. I loved every single one of the 181 books in the series.
As I made my way through the middle school years, I saw my classmates through the eyes of the characters of Sweet Valley High. We had the rich kid who wore three polo shirts with the collars popped, much like SVH’s Bruce Patman. I became friends with a girl who reminded me of Enid Rollins, Elizabeth’s sweet and loyal best friend. And, of course, we had the most popular girl in school who was extra and basic before “extra” and “basic” were words used to describe personalities. She was the real life version of Lila Fowler. Everyone wanted to be near the girl who knew the school gossip (mostly because she created it).
Over the years, my copies of Sweet Valley High became dog-eared because I read them over and over. I eventually settled into my new school and neighborhood, but coming home and seeing my friends on my bookcase was comforting. The Sweet Valley High books gave me an outlet to work out my feelings of insecurity when it came to dating, social status and figuring out how to make the cool crowd like me. (That never happened. Sigh.)
Now that I’m raising teens, I’m watching them navigate the same insecurities I did, and there are days when I wish I could hand them a Sweet Valley High book to make it all better. But Elizabeth and Jessica don’t have cell phones and social media. They don’t make YouTube videos in hopes of being internet famous. They don’t have school shootings and lockdown drills. And they don’t have to testify before Congress for safer gun laws for their schools.
Elizabeth and Jessica planned proms and took bike tours through France. They dated and they rarely had to deal with drugs. They had parents who supported them, and they lived a full life in a southern California town long before the Kardashians moved in.
Of course, the books were completely unrealistic, but high school was simpler in Sweet Valley High. High school, and life, are different now.
I hadn’t really thought about how much has changed, or how much I learned from the Sweet Valley High series. That is, until I had the chance to meet Eileen Gouge, the ghostwriter for the first six books in the series. Now, I don’t remember what I said, but I know it involved a lot of fangirling. I couldn’t believe that the universe had arranged for me to meet someone whose stories helped me survive the worst part of my teen years. Hearing Eileen talk about how the Sweet Valley High books came to be, I felt a little sad for my kids. Aside from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, I don’t think they have a book series that will elicit such memories of comfort and solace.
The biggest lesson I learned from the Sweet Valley High books was that words and actions matter.
The stories were fun and entertaining, but I had no way of knowing just how meaningful those books would become in my life. I’ve tried to impress upon my kids that our actions in the present have consequences that will last long into the future. So while they don’t have the comfort of the Sweet Valley High books the way I did, they benefit from the lessons I learned from my beloved friends—whether they know it or not.