This week I was so excited to get my hands on a vintage Sweet Valley High novel again. It has been 23 years since, aged 11, I collected every single one as they came out, dreaming of what it might be like to be a size six blonde haired Californian twin girl living the all-American lifestyle with a pool in the backyard.
Tragically, just a few years later, I sold my entire prized collection of Sweet Valley High books at a car boot sale. I thought I'd outgrown them. But it turned out I never really left behind that powerful myth of the twins with the perfect American lifestyle, and I've wondered about it ever since.
Power Play (here's the vintage edition for just 1p) was the fourth in the series and it's a classic. Bitchy cheerleader type Jessica gets pitted against goody-goody book-reading twin Elizabeth. If you loved SVH, you'll remember the story - it's almost unbelievable. Robin Wilson is a girl at school who wants to join Pi Beta Alpha, the snobby sorority headed up by Jessica. But Jessica won't let her into the club. The sole reason? Robin's chubby. Horror of horrors!
We then get to the immortal bit that struck shock into so many young girl readers back in the late 80s and early 90s: rich kid and nasty jerk Bruce Patman has agreed to take Robin to the prom in a secret deal with kindly Elizabeth, but when they arrive he leads her to the centre of the dancefloor and announces: "OK, that's it. I brought you to the dance, Tubby. I've got better things to do now. Hey! Anyone want to steer the Queen Mary around the floor tonight? She's all yours!"
How well I remember those lines - their cruelty was seared into me. Liz and her stolid boyfriend Todd rush to the rescue but later on in the novel, there's another classic moment of teen mean girlery - Jessica 'blackballs' Robin at the vote to let her into the sorority.
I remember how to 11-year-old female readers, the ultra-bitchy concept of some poor unpopular person being blackballed was fascinating.
Of course there's a happy ending: guess what, Robin starts jogging around the track every day and loses all the weight! Suddenly she's pretty and oh-so popular - even Bruce is struck dumb by her beauty. Right at the end, Robin is crowned Miss Sweet Valley High.
It's all so crude and clichéd it's beyond ludicrous, but it's a formula that adolescent girls loved (though you have to ask whether the series' obsession with being beautiful and popular scarred a generation for life).
Power Play has the ubiquitous subplot of every SVH novel (in this case how spoilt Lila Fowler starts shoplifting), and, as always, the next novel starts at the end of the book with a nice little cliffhanger, Neighbours-style - suddenly we've moved on from ugly duckling Robin; Jessica's in over her head dating a college guy.
The mystery at the time (back in pre-Google days) was who was behind the books. The covers said 'created by Francine Pascal' but inside it said they were written by someone else (in the case of Power Play, Kate William).
I remember long debates at school about who this Francine Pascal could be and what creating a book but not writing it meant. It turned out Francine Pascal had written some other books for teen girls like Love and Betrayal & Hold The Mayo which were really quite good and much more nuanced than the SVH collection.
The fact was that Pascal masterminded the books and presided over various ghostwriters between 1983 (Double Love, number one) and 1998 (Party Weekend, number 148).
I thought I'd want to read at least two SVH books and had earmarked Pretences (number 44), Showdown (19), or Playing For Keeps (49) to read next, but it turns out that now I'm grown up, the books have thankfully lost their sparkle. I don't want to be Jessica anymore (OK, I do quite want to be Elizabeth).
Or so I thought. My friend's just bought me Sweet Valley Confidential though - a new update about what happened when the twins grew up. And this year, an e-serial, The Sweet Life, came out. It turns out Liz is a star reporter while Jessica's in PR. Lila Fowler's a reality TV star. Jessica's a mom. And Liz got together with Bruce??? Wait a minute - I need to read this.
Did you love the Sweet Valley High series?