If my 1980s childhood were a museum exhibit, it would feature jelly shoes, Noxzema cleansing cream, and dozens of dog-eared Sweet Valley High books. My middle school friends and I consumed this young adult series like we guzzled Slurpees.
Sweet Valley High chronicled the lives of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, identical twin sisters who lived in a fictional, sun-drenched, ridiculously fashionable suburb of Los Angeles.
Every book began by reminding readers that the twins had golden hair, dazzling aquamarine eyes, and “perfect size-six figures” (now that I have two daughters, that last bit makes me cringe).
Then came the explanations of the charmed heroines’ opposing personalities: Jessica was a spirited troublemaker with a flair for fashion and socializing; Elizabeth was a sensitive soul who loved to write and confided in a small circle of friends.
Throughout the series, the twins emerged unscathed from even the most heinous jams, from comas and ocean shipwrecks to being kidnapped by a creepy hospital orderly. But my tween self never stopped to ponder how ridiculous the storylines were. Nor did I question the over-the-top character depictions that made my mother roll her eyes – like when the twins’ interior designer mother, Alice, was described as so trim and youthful she could pass as the girls’ older sister.
Decades later, I finally understand my mother’s reaction. No matter how meticulously I color my gray hairs, I’m quite certain that no one will mistake me for my tweens’ older, more sophisticated sibling.
My hair isn’t the only thing that has matured since the 1980s; my perspective has too.
As a shy adolescent, I aspired to be like the Wakefield twins because they seemed infinitely cooler than me. They were glamorous blondes with scads of adoring friends; I had frizzy brown hair, a stocky build, and was playing with Barbies long after most of my peers had stopped. But as an adult, I’m struck by the books’ wildly unrealistic messaging about body image, popularity, and success. And it turns out I’m not alone. Recently, I stumbled upon several blogs dedicated to recapping and poking fun at the series — and I discovered the joy and hilarity of revisiting the books as a grown-up.
Now my nighttime routine is a lot more pleasant. Instead of scrolling dismal COVID-19 headlines until my eyes glaze over, I’m left snorting with laughter at the ridiculousness of Sweet Valley High and its characters’ predictable shenanigans. In those moments the crushing uncertainty of parenting through a pandemic feels a bit lighter.
Revisiting the idyllic world of Sweet Valley in 2020 isn’t merely entertaining; it reminds me how transient these years are. Back when I was a middle schooler rocking braces and crimped hair, it seemed impossible that I would one day grow up. But I did. I’m no longer that awkward pre-teen; now I’m an older, wiser, and slightly less awkward adult.
When our world feels overwhelming and despair starts to creep in, I’m trying to remember that like my childhood, this stretch of time won’t last forever. Only Jessica and Elizabeth can remain frozen in place, sixteen and perfect for all eternity.
Just in case you want to get started, here are the first 10 Sweet Valley High books in order!