Illustration by James L. Mathewuse for EW; Book Covers: St. Martin's Paperbacks (48)

Sweet Valley High creator Francine Pascal tells all, 35 years later

To celebrate over 35 years of her beloved YA series 'Sweet Valley High,' best-selling author Francine Pascal reflects on her remarkable career, and teases what lies ahead
August 16, 2019 at 01:28 PM EDT

Are you a Jessica or an Elizabeth? Long before women donned “I’m a Carrie” T-shirts, girls around the world categorized themselves as one of the Wakefield twins — the aspirationally perfect stars of Sweet Valley High. Francine Pascal’s blockbuster young-adult book series followed the charmed yet dramatic lives of impetuous, boy-crazy Jessica Wakefield and her studious, sensible sister, Elizabeth, two 16-year-olds with nothing in common but their “perfect size-six figures,” “sun-streaked blond hair,” and “sparkling blue-green eyes.”

Kicking off in earnest 35 years ago with a packaged trio of soapy installments — Double Love, Secrets, and Playing With Fire — SVH and its multiple spin-offs spawned dozens of imitators (lookin’ at you, The Baby- Sitters Club!), ran for 20 years, were translated into 27 languages, and reportedly sold 150 million copies worldwide. For many women between the ages of 30 and 50, these books and the characters within them are their Star Wars, their Avengers, their Lord of the Rings. Even a glimpse at one of SVH’s 181 covers — with their varsity-style lettering and gorgeous, soft-focus illustrations by James L. Mathewuse — prompts a rush of nostalgia endorphins. That’s probably why the series remains a hot property to this day: In 2011, a sequel titled Sweet Valley Confidential hit the New York Times best-seller list; Dynamite Entertainment released an SVH graphic novel in August; and the movie adaptation, long stalled, is newly in the works at Paramount.

Sitting in the living room of her elegant midtown Manhattan apartment, Pascal, 81, attributes SVH’s longevity to the universal agony of the adolescent experience. “The saying ‘The more things change, the more things stay the same’ really applies to those years. There’s such similarity, no matter how different today’s teenager thinks she is,” says the author. “She’s the same in here [points to her heart] and in here [points to her head] as I was — but the clothes are different.”

Hangin’ Out With Cici (1977)

Pascal started her writing career alongside her husband, journalist John Pascal, crafting scripts for the ABC soap opera The Young Marrieds. “It was something neither of us cared about,” she says. “We needed the money.” Around the same time, John, Francine, and her brother, Tony-winning librettist Michael Stewart (Hello, Dolly!, Bye Bye Birdie) wrote the book for the Broadway musical George M!, about the life of musical-theater icon George M. Cohan, which ran for a year. Then one night, an idea came to her — fully formed, as she says most of her ideas do — for a book about a teenage girl who can’t stop fighting with her mother. Pascal went on to write three books in the Victoria Martin series; the first, Hangin’ Out With Cici, was adapted into the 1981 ABC Afterschool Special My Mother Was Never a Kid, starring Holland Taylor as the mom.

FRANCINE PASCAL: I was lying in bed, and it just hit me. I jumped up and I said to my husband, “This is it!” The whole thing was in three lines: A 13-year-old girl today who can’t get along with her mother goes back in time to her mother’s childhood and becomes her mother’s best friend. When I started to write about Cici and Victoria, I realized I had a lot to say about those years. I knew how to do it.

Sweet Valley High (1983)

Like so many great ideas, Sweet Valley High was born out of two key circumstances in a writer’s life: rejection and deadline pressure. After the success of Hangin’ Out With Cici and her 1980 novel, The Hand-Me-Down Kid, Pascal pitched networks a soap opera centered on teens in high school. “They were not interested,” she recalls. “They said it was too girly.” Then a casual comment from a friend — plus a looming obligation to her publisher — combined to spark magic.

PASCAL: A friend of mine had lunch with a [book] editor, a man, who said, “Why isn’t there a Dallas for young people?” I thought about it, and I actually had a book [proposal] due. There are a lot of twins in my life. [My agent] Amy [Berkower] is a twin. My sister-in-law was a twin. People are always fascinated by twins. You’ll never be alone. [Laughs] I thought about it, and this other soap opera thing was in my head, the one that I couldn’t sell. I sat down and I wrote a [character] bible and the first 12 [SVH] stories. It went quickly because it was such a fertile idea. Bantam Books loved it. They ordered all 12.

Pascal had a “heavy hand” in the creation of the first SVH book, Double Love, but she never had any interest in writing the books herself. “My [previous] writing for young adults was humorous, and I didn’t think there was going to be humor in [these books],” she explains. Instead, Pascal oversaw a team of ghostwriters who worked on her character bible and the detailed outlines she created for each story. When asked what her “do’s and don’ts” were for SVH’s ghostwriters, Pascal is blunt.

PASCAL: “Don’t do anything of yours — only do what I say.” It’s true! Because I trusted myself, and [the publisher] trusted me, and we just kept doing it. It was mostly very young, new writers. The story outlines weren’t chapter by chapter, more like acts: You get from here to here in the first quarter, then you have to get from here to here. Don’t forget, they already had the bible, where I had written deeply into the lives of the twins and their backgrounds. With the characters, you knew what they liked, you knew what the walls in their room [looked like], every single thing about them. The writers had to use those [guidelines] and follow them strictly.

SVH became an instant phenomenon, and publisher Bantam Books began cranking out spin-offs (including Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley High Senior Year, and Sweet Valley University). They also launched bonus installments like the murder-mystery Super Thriller series and the Sweet Valley Saga books, which chronicled the ancestral history of the Wakefield clan and other prominent SVH families. As the number of books multiplied, the storytelling boundaries expanded beyond boy troubles and intra-clique rivalries: Later SVH installments featured supernatural flourishes, like vampires and werewolves, and delicious melodrama, including a trilogy about a pair of murderous Jessica and Elizabeth doppelgängers named Margo and Nora (see: The Evil Twin, Return of the Evil Twin). Pascal conceived the stories for every book and says she took care to incorporate her “ethics and morals” into the narratives.

PASCAL: I had total freedom to do anything I wanted. If I wanted to make them fly, that was okay. If I had to do 10 more, I could do 10 more, but my God, I did every single thing.

The very important thing was, I was a liberal Jewish woman, and a New Yorker. So [my perspective] is going to be quite different from a lot of the people who are reading the books. I realized the power that I could have. I [think I] made Mr. Wakefield’s parents Jewish, in Europe, escaping from the Nazis or something. Why not? It’s mine, I’ll do what I please.

St. Martin's Paperbacks (3)

By today’s standards, SVH’s characters are woefully homogenous — but Pascal intentionally made some inroads with diversity later in the series.

PASCAL: Don’t forget, it was the ’80s. Things were very different then. I never saw so many white people in my life as in Sweet Valley, it’s true. It finally had a Latino [character, in book No. 81, Rosa’s Lie]. I liked that one because Rosa was ashamed and pretended that she didn’t speak [Spanish], and then she had to save the little girl in the well who only spoke Spanish. [Laughs] There were really very few [diverse characters]. And it’s amazing because all over the world, particularly in the Philippines, they loved Sweet Valley, and I thought, “But there’s nobody like you there. Why do you love it?” But they did. I guess because of this common denominator [of teenage life] that I was talking about — it didn’t make any difference what color [the readers were], everybody was really essentially the same.

Right around the time Jessica Wakefield was dating secret vampire Jonathan Cain (book No. 127, Dance of Death) — a precursor to the YA vampire boom — the twins were given new life on the small screen. Sweet Valley High the TV series, starring former Doublemint twins Brittany and Cynthia Daniel, ran from 1994 to 1997 in syndication and briefly on UPN. Pascal worked with her daughter, casting director and producer Jamie Stewart, to find the perfect set of identical actresses through nationwide casting calls. (Stewart died in 2008 after battling liver disease.)

PASCAL: [Jamie] did the traveling to find them, yeah. All kinds of twins showed up to the auditions. And [Jamie] found a set of twins, Brittany and Cynthia, they were California twins. They looked like they just walked out of the books.

Hollywood has been trying to adapt SVH into a movie for a full decade. Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) was the first to take a crack at it, in 2009, for Universal, but the script stalled. The project has since moved to Paramount; Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith and Harper Dill were hired to write the screenplay in 2017 but were replaced by Emmy-winning Rick and Morty writer (and hardcore SVH fan) Jessica Gao earlier this year. Pascal, who does not have script approval but is consulting on the film, is still hopeful a movie can happen — but the years of delay have taken a slight toll on her enthusiasm. “I hope I live long enough for this [to happen],” she says frankly.

PASCAL: I had such high hopes for Universal because Diablo is a wonderful writer and she loves Sweet Valley, but I don’t think it was her fault. I think it was the story; it wasn’t good. Now they have a different writer, and they will consult with me on the story.

I think they want something new [rather than basing it on an existing book], and they have some good ideas, it’s just a matter of getting it right. I do want it to be done right. I would like it to be done. It’s so many years now that this has been going on, and it’s really a shame. They seem very serious, and the people in charge [at Paramount] are Sweet Valley fans, so I’m trusting them.

If Wishes Were Horses (1994)

Though she was generally “drowning” in SVH duties, Pascal did find time to write two adult novels: a psychological thriller called Save Johanna! in 1981, and If Wishes Were Horses, a fictionalized memoir about her love affair with her husband, John, who died from cancer in 1981. Horses follows Anna, who copes with her husband’s death by relocating to France, where she looks back on their turbulent courtship and loving marriage while struggling to acclimate to an often unforgiving French culture.

PASCAL: I was thinking about [writing] it all through the ’80s. I probably would not have done it while he was alive. First of all, it was a little close. And I thought, “Am I going to remember all those things that happened?” But when I sat down to write it, I remembered — I could see it all. And the fact was, my husband wasn’t there to say, “Don’t do that!” It gave me a lot of freedom.

[Writing] it was funny and sad. It was going back to a lot of things that I really hadn’t thought about and probably would never have thought about if I wasn’t using them [for the book]. Also, I could look with humor at a lot of these tragic things. It was cathartic.

Pascal says “the core of everything” in Horses is based in truth, including some of the most dramatic elements: Like Anna, Pascal was romantically involved with someone else when she met her future husband, was molested by a stranger at a nude beach, and was propositioned by an elderly French duke after lunch at his country estate.

PASCAL: That’s absolutely true. I can see him now, standing on the bed with his robe open: “Let’s f—!” I can’t tell you how stunned I was.

Pascal in her Manhattan home, filled with SVH memorabilia, in 1988
Evelyn Floret/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Fearless (1999)

Pascal’s second-most-successful YA series tells the story of Gaia Moore, a 17-year-old girl who does not feel fear.

PASCAL: I thought to myself, “What if a girl was born without the fear gene? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?” Courage is a very important thing to me; I never think I have enough of it. And fear is something I have too much of. I remember there was a skier called Hermann Maier, and he took incredible risks — I thought, “There’s a person who if he’s not born without fear completely, it must be so tiny.” I just fell in love with that idea, and that’s when I wrote Fearless.

Fearless ran for five years and 36 installments — like SVH, Pascal created the stories while ghostwriters wrote the books — and Simon & Schuster debuted a spin-off series, Fearless FBI, in 2005. Gaia even got her own TV show…almost. In 2003, The WB announced a series based on Gaia’s FBI adventures, but the drama (starring Rachael Leigh Cook and exec-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) failed to jell creatively and never made it to air. For that, Pascal is grateful. The author is now working on a new adaptation of Fearless — but it’s not for the page or the screen.

PASCAL: [The TV show] had it all wrong. They had a Gaia who was almost silent. I talked to them about it — I sent endless emails, which they probably put in the garbage. It was really just so wrong, and Gaia was so terrible. I don’t know what they were thinking! At the end it was so bad, [Bruckheimer] put it in the can, which is where it has stayed. I wrote him a letter and said, “Thank you.”

Playwright Jon Marans and I have written a musical called The Fearless Girl. Right this minute! We’re just a couple of weeks from recording the music. Jon and I wrote the book and the lyrics, and Graham Lyle, who wrote several Tina Turner songs, he’s written the music. It’s really exciting. It’s about Gaia — she’s outspoken and tough. She’s outrageous, she’s incorrigible. She is the nightmare teenager with no fear — and because of that, because she doesn’t have the fight-or-flight [response], she only knows fight. She’s not quite Superwoman, but she’s very close. She can’t fly.

Simon Pulse (2); Crown; Viking Books for Young Readers

The Ruling Class (2004)

As one of Pascal’s only YA books that wasn’t part of a series, The Ruling Class — about a teenager named Twyla who clashes with a nasty clique of girls at her new high school — was overshadowed by a similarly themed pop culture phenomenon.

PASCAL I saw something on TV about “mean girls” [a phrase popularized by Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book, Queen Bees & Wannabees], and I thought, “That’s great!” I sat down and started to write Mean Girls. I was halfway finished [with the book] and then [my agent] Amy said, “Bad news — Tina Fey is shooting a movie called Mean Girls.” So I had to rename it The Ruling Class.

[Being] first is crucial, and I wasn’t. I still think that message, that the strongest way to defeat a bully is in unity, isn’t emphasized enough. I think it should be taught in schools, because not only would it be effective, it’s exciting. It’s like the army of the good.

The Legacy of Sweet Valley

At 81, Pascal remains busy. In addition to the Fearless musical, the author has an adult novel coming out next year, and she also recently revised the book for Mack & Mabel, the 1974 musical written by her late brother, Michael. (New York’s Encores! theater series will stage the production in February.) Though she has no plans to revisit SVH, over the years Pascal has grown to appreciate the series in a deeper way.

PASCAL: I never really had the respect for Sweet Valley that I had for my other YA books. I felt it was a kind of soap opera, and that was kind of a lesser thing. I was wrong, because it had [an] enormous effect on people. Essentially it was very important and deserved [respect] — now I see it. At least a quarter of the fan mail that I got started off with “I used to hate to read…” It was sometimes from the kid, and sometimes from the par- ent, who would say, “She used to hate to read…” That’s the best thing that happened [with Sweet Valley]. That and money.

Related content:

Sweet Valley High movie update: Jessica Gao takes over as writer

Check out an excerpt of Sweet Valley spin-off The Sweet Life

Sweet Valley High creator Francine Pascal on the sequel, the movie, and (perhaps) another book 

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