When I was a kid, I attended a small Catholic school in a south suburb of Chicago. The parish of Saints Cyril and Methodius (try spelling that on a mandatory worksheet header when you’re 6) boasted a stunning Polish cathedral-style church and outdoor grottoes with imposing statuary, but not much in the way of a school library. All the grandeur was reserved for worship, it seemed.
Nevertheless, I spent hours in the tiny basement library. The individual sections were so small that random subjects intermingled, as if the Dewey decimal system had been replaced with a giant lottery tumbler. I became well acquainted with Emily Dickinson, Stephen Hawking, and a surprisingly graphic book about breast health. I’m convinced I am an excellent at-home Jeopardy! player today because of that library.
Then one day, I saw that some unfamiliar books had arrived. They didn’t have the stiff, glossy spines of ”baby books,” but they also didn’t look like the ponderous grown-up horror novels I sneaked from the (superior) public library on weekends. These slim, sherbet-hued paperbacks looked glamorous, more accessorial than instructive. Like you might enjoy one while sipping Tab and working on a base tan. I wriggled one of the books loose from the groaning shelf and read the title: Sweet Valley High. The three beats of this incantatory phrase were already exciting. Sweet: That sounded decadent, like the hollow chocolate bunnies the nuns gave us at Easter. Valley: To a lifelong Midwesterner, this was exotic terrain. High: More than anything else, I wanted to be older. My babysitter, Lynn, was in high school, and she had lots of cool friends and a pastel-painted bedroom. Sometimes, a car driven by a boy would appear in her driveway. He’d honk the horn, and Lynn would come out wearing something outrageous and ’80s, like a tuxedo. I immediately wanted to know more about this Sweet Valley High.
As I took the book up to the counter, the nun on duty eyeballed my selection. ”I don’t know why we have these books,” Sister Sylvia sighed. ”You kids are too young to be reading about couples.”
”Couples?” I was suddenly even more excited.
”I don’t think this book is for you, Brook,” the librarian added. ”What happened to Wuthering Heights?”
Wuthering Heights can suck it, that’s what! I went home, curled up in my bedroom, and officially entered the Valley. It was even better than I could have imagined. The protagonists were identical twins named Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. Like most preadolescent girls, I was obsessed with twins and hoped I had a twin my mom had somehow forgotten at the hospital. But Elizabeth and Jessica weren’t just identical. They had ”sun-kissed” blond hair, which I longed for. They had blue-green eyes, and they didn’t have to wear thick glasses like I did. When they smiled, they didn’t have rubber bands crisscrossing their bites. Their Southern California days were filled with beaches and bike trips and gossip at the Dairi Burger. Best of all, they loved each other.
I never forgot about Elizabeth and Jessica as I grew up. Their world, though frankly and outlandishly unreal, was so beautiful to me. In fact, it was that very nonreality that made the Sweet Valley series so satisfying. The books were transportive for me and my peers the same way Harry Potter is for today’s young readers. (Actually, Hogwarts is arguably more realistic than Sweet Valley High at times. Harry might ride a broom, but High‘s Bruce Patman had his own Porsche at 16.)
A few months ago, I sat down with Sweet Valley High creator Francine Pascal. I wanted to write and produce a movie based on the books, but I could never do that without the involvement of the twins’ ”mom.” I’ve gotten somewhat proficient at keeping my s — – together during business meetings, but this time, my heart was pounding against my ribs. I wanted so badly for Francine to see how much I enjoyed her creation and how for me, Elizabeth and Jessica were guides to another universe, a place full of possibility and good hair. Luckily, she listened patiently to my excited babbling, and we found ourselves on the same page. All I have to say is: RADICAL. Wish me luck, people. Sweet Valley High is fantastic, fabulous, a little bit campy, and — dare I say it — cinematic.