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.

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