True Story: Sweet Valley High #1 (Double Love)

This is a tough True Story to write.

Like you, I have a lot of warm and fuzzy spots in my heart for all things Sweet Valley. I grew up on Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. Even as a kid, I knew the books weren’t exactly great literature, but that didn’t change my love for them! There were so many books to read, so many hilarious high school scenarios to get swept into. How many times can Jess and Lizzie successfully pull off a swap? As far as I can remember, the limit does not exist.

I’ve been teasing this week’s new episode for more than a month, and I know how excited so many of you have been to hear a Sweet Valley breakdown. We covered the thirty-second book in the series (yes, thirty-second) — entitled The New Jessica — on Episode 19, but when Grace Atwood and Becca Freeman from the Bad on Paper podcast signed on to chat about the first Sweet Valley book (Double Love), I knew it would be a totally new experience. There was something about revisiting the kickoff to the series that felt fundamentally cooler. It was going to be fun, right?

Well, I hate to say it, but it was not so fun. There was actually a lot to dislike in this book. I hardly expected to be blown away by the prose or anything, but I did not predict that it would be quitttte so problematic. This feels like a bold statement, but I’m prepared to make it: It might be the most problematic title in SSR history.

We touch on many of Double Love’s problematic plot points and characters in this week’s episode, so be sure to tune in for the full overview (apologies, in advance, for pulling back the curtain on all of this — yikes!), but…

I’m taking a closer look at some of the especially icky matters in this installment of True Story.

(You can listen to the episode here and get a refresher on Double Love from this summary, if that’s helpful.)

The characters have disturbingly inaccurate views of themselves and others.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which all of the characters were so ridiculously off-base in terms of their assessments of themselves and the people around them. As the book opens, we have Jessica talking about how unattractive she is, only so she can turn around later and congratulate herself for being so hot. We have Elizabeth constantly waffling back and forth between thinking that her sister is above reproach and, well, reproaching her. We have the entire Wakefield family making judgements about Steve’s girlfriend’s parents, even though they’ve never met them. We have an entire student body who seems totally willing to accept the suggestion that Elizabeth could have been caught drinking at a bar when all signs point to Jessica being the wilder child.

Like, WHAT?

Rick Andover actually assaults the Wakefields and it’s never really addressed.

Yes, we get a sense that Rick Andover is your stereotypical “bad boy,” and though Jessica is open to trusting him the first time they hang out, she does come around to the fact that he’s actually terrible by the end (to her credit, I guess). But I can’t help but think that the author should have been a bit more explicit about the fact that what happens between Rick and the twins is really quite serious — an assault! He pulls the girls into his car against their will and touches them in spite of their protestations. Young readers need to know that when things like this happen, it’s not enough to just roll your eyes and blame it on being a bad boy. They should be empowered to understand that it’s a much bigger deal than that and given the tools to address it head-on.

The fact that the twins think their dad must be having an affair because he’s working late with a female lawyer is both ridiculous and offensive.

My first instinct here was that this is simply a hilarious assumption. Clearly, the author wanted to add some drama to the Wakefield family so they wouldn’t be too perfect, so why not just make the twins suspicious of an affair between their father and his colleague at the law firm? Clearly, Jessica and Elizabeth are overreacting.

When I thought about it a little more, though, I realized that the assumption is also kind of offensive. We’re meant to believe that Jessica and Elizabeth are strong, independent women, but they never stop to consider the fact that Marianna West (the female lawyer who works at their dad’s firm) could actually have work to do with their father, or that she could be seeking some professional guidance. They can’t wrap their head around the notion that anything other than sex could be happening! Ugh.

This book is essentially all dialogue and description about appearances.

Maybe Francine Pascal thought that the kids and teens she was writing for would be most interested in reading conversations. And maybe most kids and teens are most interested in those elements! As an adult, though, it did kind of blow my mind just how much of this book is written in dialogue. Anything that’s not dialogue is pretty much just long-winded descriptions of how bright and shiny-looking the people and places of Sweet Valley are.

There’s no one exercising good judgement or discernment in Sweet Valley.

Everyone is jumping to conclusions and making misguided assumptions about others. There’s absolutely no critical thinking going on in this town. When you’re a teenager, it can be hard to exercise good judgment or be discerning, but I wish that there were a few more teachable moments in this book. If those ridiculous judgements and assumptions are going to fly around, fine! — but couldn’t the characters have a few more genuine moments of personal growth when it dawns on them that they didn’t think through something properly? The beauty of kid lit is that it often gives younger readers a chance to see their own mistakes reflected back at them so they can learn a few life lessons in a fun way, and I’m not sure how effectively this book does that. I’m not saying that every YA or middle grade book has to be moralistic — some titles should just be pure fun! — but there is such bad judgement happening in Double Love that I think it needs to be called out differently.

It’s hard to say who the target audience for this book is.

The reading level on this book seems to skew closer to middle school or early high school, but the content definitely seems older. I don’t think that this is an uncommon discrepancy, but it’s worth pointing out. Knowing what I know now about how this book handles relationships and sexuality (more on that below!), I think it’s particularly problematic for younger readers, who may be more impressionable and more likely to accept Jessica and Elizabeth’s behaviors as norms. I’d love to know what you think about this!

I hate everything that Double Love has to say about appearances and sexuality.

Jessica and Elizabeth spend so much of this book focused on nothing but the way that boys and men perceive them. Even Elizabeth — who we’re told is the bookish, smart twin — leads almost exclusively with her looks, instead of her brain and curiosity. Both twins are happy to accept less-than-respectful treatment from the guys in their life if it means getting worshipped and praised for their beauty. Double standards abound. There are a few scenes of the grossest kind of “locker room talk” as the boys of Sweet Valley work to unpack the mix-up with Elizabeth in the squad car. Jessica seems to revel in catcalling and other forms of unwanted male attention.

Obviously, it’s every woman’s prerogative to embrace their sexuality in the way that makes them most comfortable. That being said, Jessica and Elizabeth are not good role models for respecting and being kind to yourself in the process.

Listen to the podcast episode about Sweet Valley High #1: Double Love here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about Sweet Valley. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

True Story: Bridge to Terabithia

On Episode 50 of the podcast, writer Meg Elison and I felt all of the feels in a discussion about Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Medal-winning middle grade novel Bridge to Terabithia. The book was published in 1977, but its themes of friendship and grief and self-discovery are about as timeless as it gets. Rereading this book was so much more emotional than I expected it to be, and I’m so glad Meg joined me to chat about how the author presents so many big subjects for young readers: class, poverty, relationships, grief, and the afterlife. It’s pretty heavy!

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I had no idea when I offered Bridge to Terabithia as an option for Meg that this book meant so much to her when she was a kid, and that she had even aspired to be Katherine Paterson when she was growing up! The universe works in funny ways. I’m so glad that Meg had a chance to share more about how Bridge made a difference in her life, and I think that recording this episode gave us both a chance to dig deep into the recesses of our childhood emotions. As usual, I wasn’t able to share all of my opinions about this book (there’s just so much here!), so it’s time to give you the True Story. Since we’re back from hiatus next week, I’ll finally be able to share the True Story of the book we covered on the most recent new episode in my Friday blog post, so look out for that! In the meantime…

Here are some of my additional thoughts (AKA the True Story)…

(And here’s a summary of the book if you need it!)

There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of heteronormative language in this one.

Meg and I spoke briefly about some of the heteronormative themes in this book. We also discussed the interesting dynamic that’s created when Jess is unsure of Leslie’s gender, since she doesn’t present the way that others girls he knows does. There was a lot more that I wanted to say, though, about the use of “traditional” gender roles and gendered language in Bridge to Terabithia. Yes, I know that it’s a product of a different time, but I think it’s worth mentioning, anyway.

We see it in the schoolyard, when the boys in Jess’s class are offended that Leslie would have the nerve to join their races… let alone beat them! We see it at Jess’s house, where it seems as though the only things that the girls and women in the family care about are clothes and appearances. Jess craves the kind of attention that his sisters get from their dad. “[May Belle] could run after him and grab him and kiss him. It made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born.” Jess’s dad is the one promoting much of the heteronormative thinking in the book.

Jess is so driven to make his family — especially his dad — proud, in a way that is relatable to readers of any age.

While we’re on the subject of Jess’s dad, let’s talk about how much Jess wants to please him. Because Jess doesn’t earn validation from his father in the form of attention and physical affection (the way his sisters do), he seems to be constantly on the lookout for the smallest indication that he is doing his father proud. He spends the summer training for the schoolyard running races so that he’ll have bragging rights at home, and he never quits on the long list of farm chores assigned to him, despite the fact that no one seems to notice his efforts. All of this totally broke my heart, not only because I grew so attached to Jess over the course of reading this book, but also because this obsession with parental approval is something that so many of us can relate to, even as adults. Haven’t we all had moments of wanting to make our mom or dad proud, even if it seems like we’re not going to get the validation we’re looking for?

I liked the way this book portrayed boy/girl friendship.

All too often in middle grade books, there’s an undertone of flirtation and awkwardness permeating friendships between girls and boys. We don’t get any of that in this book! Jess and Leslie adore each other, but it’s entirely platonic and innocent. As someone who had many platonic relationships with boys when I was in middle and high school, I found this really refreshing and true to life. I appreciated that Katherine Paterson opted to never muddy the waters of Jess and Leslie’s relationship. It made their feelings for each other seem that much more meaningful and intense. They didn’t need to have crushes on each other to be in love.

Bottom line: Jess doesn’t want to share Leslie.

We’ve all been there, right? You meet an awesome new friend and you want to spend all of your time with them. The sheer notion that this friend might be able to have fun with someone else or that you would have to give up time with them so they can hang with another person becomes very upsetting. I definitely felt this way as a kid! It feels icky to say, but friendship can get a little territorial.

I recognized this in Jess’s relationship with Leslie. He is so grateful to have her in his life and he can’t deal with the thought of her bonding with anyone else. He’s not especially excited to invite kids or adults into their magical little world, whether that be Miss Edmunds, Janice, May Belle, or Leslie’s parents.

I was fascinated by the presentation of seventies culture in Bridge to Terabithia.

I’ve always loved the seventies. It’s probably my favorite era in terms of pop culture (and fashion, of course). In Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson presents a really interesting picture of the seventies, in which hippie culture is constantly at odds with a more conservative sensibility, which is extremely prevalent in Jess’s small town in Virginia. I thought it was fascinating that even the kids were aware of this divide, and that they were getting in on the “debate” by commenting on the ways in which their teachers dressed and presented themselves. Even the differences between Jess and Leslie’s families reveal a bigger picture divide between these two approaches to life.

Listen to the podcast episode about Bridge to Terabithia here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about Bridge to Terabithia. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

True Story: The Egypt Game

On Episode 43 of the podcast, writer and editor Andrea Bartz and I took a little trip to the land of Egypt… well, the version of the land of Egypt created by the kid protagonists in Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Andrea and I reminisced about how this Newbery Honor winner had been each of our favorite favorites for a year or so when we were growing up. We swapped notes about some of the (potentially problematic) ways that our elementary schools taught about ancient and international cultures back in the nineties. We spoke about the value of imagination and the rich characters and how cool it was that the kids in this book are resourceful enough to build a world of their own in the backyard of a local antique shop without the help of Google or Amazon Prime (what? you can’t overnight magic markers? the horror!). And in true SSR fashion, we of course spoke about some of the elements of this beloved book that have aged slightly less well.

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On the whole, I’d say that the conversation that Andrea and I had about The Egypt Game back in April was a positive one. While I couldn’t say that the reread necessarily made me love the book all the more, coming back to it was a nice experience! It’s always good to be reminded of the things you were crazy about as a kid… and since the book was a favorite favorite for me, it felt that much more special.

Whenever I come to the end of a recording for the podcast, I realize that I still have notes! So many notes! I can never quite share all of my opinions about a book in the hour that I spend chatting with each guest, so every week in this True Story feature, I offer a few more observations. Typically, installments of True Story will focus on the book we’ve discussed on the new episode of SSR from that week, but since we’re currently on a brief hiatus from new episodes, I’m throwing it back to a title from an earlier show! (You can listen to the episode here and get a refresher on The Egypt Game from this summary, if that’s helpful.)

Here are some of my additional thoughts (AKA the True Story)…

The Egypt Game makes learning and curiosity look really cool.

Main characters April and Melanie bond because they are both fascinated with ancient cultures. I loved that curiosity and intelligence was the basis of their friendship! Even more, I loved that Zilpha Keatley Snyder took this idea a step further by setting up the Egypt Game as a thing that popular kids like Ken and Toby would want to be part of. The boys were so eager to be invited to play that they were willing to cut a deal with a group of girls they barely knew! I think that’s a really great message for kids who are questioning whether or not their interests or brains are “cool.”

When kids create their own world like they do in this book, it feels like they have a lot of agency.

I’ve spoken about this on a few episodes of the podcast, but I absolutely loved books in which kids were physically building their own worlds and spaces. In addition to The Egypt Game, the Boxcar Children series and Bridge to Terabithia are great examples. At the time, I think I liked imagining what it would actually be like as a kid to have access to the materials necessary to do this — and more than that, the freedom to do so in a creative way.

When I consider this kid lit trope from a grown-up perspective, I think I just loved the idea of kids my age having agency over their lives and spaces. That sense of control felt really satisfying! It didn’t hurt that I was a pretty imaginative kid myself, and I wanted to build my own world, too.

The situation with main character April and her mom is actually really upsetting.

April’s mom Dorothea is off trying to get famous (I think I refer to her as the equivalent of a Bravo-lebrity in the episode), which is why April is now living with her grandmother in northern California. Obviously, I have all of the respect for a single mom chasing her dreams, but she’s pretty negligent — and hurtful — in the way she handles the whole thing. Dorothea is barely in touch with her daughter, she keeps pushing back the date when they can be reunited for extremely vague reasons, and she even gets married while April is gone! (And you know that girl would lovvvve being part of a wedding.) While I’m sure I could put myself in April’s shoes and feel sad about all of it when I read this as a kid, I definitely found myself picking up on Dorothea’s patterns more this time around, and it broke my heart. April was such a cool and interesting kid, and I hated that her mom couldn’t see that… especially because April was constantly defending her when others had their doubts.

I don’t know that this book could have happened in 2019.

Cultural appropriation, anyone? Yeah, this would definitely be an issue today.

If, like me, you loved this book when you were growing up, I think we can agree that, since The Egypt Game was written in the seventies, it comes from a totally different context than our current one. Cultural appropriation was not part of the conversation at that time, and I have no doubt that Zilpha Keatley Snyder was actually trying to put together a cast of young characters who were celebrating Egyptian culture when she wrote this book.

That being said, I think it’s worth noting that the premise would potentially run into issues today. The kids (as much as I love them!) aren’t acknowledging the real struggles of ancient Egyptians or the existence of people in modern Egypt! Instead, their relationship with Egypt is purely performative.

The power struggles between the boys and the girls are really interesting (and funny).

We touch on this briefly in the episode, but I enjoyed this element of the book so much that I think it deserves an extra shoutout! The way that Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote the relationship between the Egypt Game’s OG ladies (April, Melanie, and Elizabeth) and the “cool guys” who eventually join them (Ken and Toby) felt so real to me. I love that the girls are on guard when the boys join them, and that they want to make sure that their ideas take precedence, since they were the ones to invent the game in the first place. There’s this weird tension underlying all of their conversations because they’re not quiiiiiite comfortable playing with each other yet, but everyone’s also trying to get their way at all times.

Small changes in language throughout the book show that April is bonding with her grandmother.

Andrea and I didn’t get a chance to talk much about April’s grandmother when we recorded the episode, but I think she’s actually a really interesting character! She’s taken her granddaughter into her home while her son’s ex is off trying to get famous (a complex dynamic in itself), and is doing her best to raise her while working full-time. And let’s be honest — I love April, but she is not an easy customer! When we meet these characters, there’s definitely an adjustment period going on as she eases into her new life.

For the majority of the book, April exclusively refers to her grandmother by her “real” name — Caroline. Yes, this demonstrates April’s sassy, independent attitude, but it also helps to make clear throughout the story that the girl is doing everything she can to maintain a healthy emotional distance between herself and her grandmother. She’s holding out hope that her mom is going to come back soon so she can resume her seemingly glamorous life in Hollywood, and as long as she doesn’t allow herself to bond with Caroline, that seems like a more likely scenario. Right? Right. There’s a very subtle shift toward the end of the book when April is involved in the dangerous attack in the land of Egypt. She starts calling her grandmother “Grandma!” It seems like she’s starting to let her walls down (Bachelorette-speak over here) and get comfortable in her new home, with her new family.

Listen to the podcast episode about The Egypt Game here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about The Egypt Game. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!** 

True Story: Walk Two Moons

Introducing… another regular series you can expect to see on the blog — True Story!

Every week on the podcast, you hear a lot of my thoughts and opinions about the book we’re covering on each episode. But you don’t get to hear all of my thoughts and opinions. Riiiiiiight? Right. While it’s important to me to be open with you about the books we discuss, my primary goal as the host of the show is to guide the conversation and get the guest’s take on things. After all, we get some pretty awesome guests, and I want them to bring their unique perspective to the topic at hand!

With the blog, though, comes the chance for me to share more of my own feelings about many of the titles we cover on the pod. Every Friday (well, almost every Friday), you can come here for the True Story — at least, IMHO! — about the week’s book. I’m excited to make this a place where you can share your own opinions and experiences, based both on your own childhood reading memories and what you thought while listening to the podcast. Let’s make the comments section a lively (and respectful, duh) place!

As you may already know, the latest episode of the show was a Q+A, so this first installment of True Story will cover the book we discussed last week, Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. (Listen to the episode here! And get a refresher on the story with this summary!)

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I spend a lot of time on Episode 52 talking with my guest Katharine Scrivener (who you may know better as bookstagram’s @readwithkat) about the main plot points and character beats of Walk Two Moons, but with a book as rich as this one, it’s impossible to cover everything in just an hour. Here are a few of my other thoughts…

There are some really beautiful love stories in this book.

While romance certainly isn’t the focus of Walk Two Moons, there are a few seriously sweet love stories going on. First, there’s our narrator Sal’s budding — and EXTREMELY awkward — relationship with her will-they-or-won’t-they friend Ben. Like so many successful couples, Sal and Ben meet when they’re part of the same friend group… and like so many middle schoolers, they experience some incredibly awkward kissing attempts over the course of the book. Some of these misses were especially cringe-y, but I loved being in Sal’s head as she questioned Ben’s feelings, as well as her own.

Walk Two Moons would also not be the same without Gram and Gramps. Sal’s grandparents are free spirits who don’t seem to take anything too seriously, but their love for each other is painfully obvious. One of my favorite parts about their relationship is that it’s not perfect! There are a few references to Gram’s rendezvous with a milkman years earlier — an obstacle that these two have clearly had to overcome. But overcome it they did, and their interactions are the cutest (and the most heartbreaking at the end).

And I can’t forget the relationship between Sal’s parents! We never get the chance to watch these two interact in real time, but Sal’s memories paint a picture of real happiness.

the adults aren’t perfect… and they’re not afraid to apologize, even to kids.

If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you know how much I love it when the grown-ups in kid lit prove themselves fallible. I love it even more when they actually have to admit that to the kids! Walk Two Moons takes this plot line a step further. Several of the adult characters reveal their flaws and “weaknesses” to Sal and her friends, but their teacher Mr. Birkway goes so far as to actually apologize to them! When he sends the class into chaos by reading entries from student journals aloud (you can only IMAGINE what was in there), he makes a public apology, admitting that it was a mistake to share things that should have remained their secrets.

I think it’s important for kids to see adults modeling apologies… and since apologizing doesn’t necessarily get any easier as we get older, Mr. Birkway’s example is well-taken, even for us grown-ups!

Phoebe winterbottom’s dietary restrictions seem a lot less quirky to me in 2019.

Sal’s new BFF Phoebe Winterbottom comes from a family that is very concerned with cholesterol. Dinners at the Winterbottom household are a very healthy affair. When Mrs. Winterbottom disappears, Phoebe copes with her sadness in ways that may seem unexpected. For one, she doubles down on the dietary restrictions imposed by her mom in the first place.

One evening, Sal and Phoebe are invited to have dinner at Ben and Mary Lou’s house, and Phoebe has a bit of a meltdown at the table when she finds that none of the available food is satisfactory. She goes into an extensive explanation of why each of the dishes is unhealthy, refusing to eat them all. I can only imagine that when I read this as an elementary schooler, Phoebe’s extensive list of dietary restrictions seemed completely absurd… but the conversation around food has shifted substantially over the last two decades. While I still can’t say I approve of Phoebe’s bratty behavior (there are polite ways to talk with your host about your food allergies and special dietary regimen!), I am much more sympathetic to the fact that she’s asking for certain adjustments to her meal.

Sal’s frustration about the pace of their road trip felt so real to me.

For most of the book, it’s unclear to us as readers whether Sal’s mother is dead or alive in Lewiston, Idaho… but we do know that Sal has decided it’s crucial that she and her grandparents make it to their destination in time for her mom’s birthday if they have any hope of “bringing her back.” As someone who gets very anxious about being on time (ideally, early!), I could literally feel it in my body when Sal was beginning to stress about whether or not she, Gram, and Gramps could get to Idaho by this deadline. Sharon Creech did such an amazing job of illustrating this!

There are more explicit references to mental health.

On the episode, Katharine and I talk briefly about some of the more vague references to mental health in Walk Two Moons. When the book was published in 1994, we simply didn’t have the same level of openness about the subject that we do now! The author does, however, paint thoughtful pictures of characters who are struggling with anxiety and depression, and in Sal and Phoebe’s explorations of their missing mothers, it’s impossible not to wonder if these women need more support with respect to their mental health.

There is, however, one more explicit reference to this subject that Katharine and I did not get to mention on mic. Sal’s friend Ben is staying with his cousin Mary Lou and her family, but for most of the book, we’re not totally sure why. Ultimately, we learn that his mother is a patient at a mental health facility. Sal even goes with Ben to visit her! I think it’s important for kids to understand that these resources are available and real… and that they don’t have to be scary.

sal’s relationship with her grandparents reminds me of my own grandmother.

There’s not much about the final chapters of Walk Two Moons that isn’t emotional, but the loss of Gram is probably what hit me the hardest. I lost my own grandmother very suddenly back in September, and when Sal experiences a similarly unexpected tragedy while on the road with her grandparents, it broke my heart into a million little pieces. I’m not one to cry over a book… but this one brought me pretty close to tears!

Listen to the podcast episode about Walk Two Moons here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about Walk Two Moons. Share them with me in the comments below.

**Please note that the Amazon links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links. Please do not feel inclined to purchase unless you are excited to add these books to your TBR list!**