Tara Calaby

writer & editor

Author: Tara Calaby (page 2 of 23)

Recap: (SVT7) Three’s A Crowd – Francine Pascal

Three's a Crowd coverI will happily overlook all manner of unrealistic things when it comes to Sweet Valley. I will nod and accept the fact that people still love Jessica, despite her constant scheming (because, hey, I love her too) and take it in my stride that people consider Elizabeth popular and kind, instead of boring and holier-than-though. But I just can’t take the complete and utter ridiculousness of this book. Not only is it extremely impossible, but it also sends a really dangerous message to kids.

Okay, so the story. We’ve met Mary Giaccio here and there before as one of the just-a-name Unicorns. But suddenly she’s always at the Wakefield house, which is helped by the fact that she lives with her foster parents, just up the road. Jess quickly realises that Mary is more interested in spending time with Alice than she is with Jess or Elizabeth and gets totally creeped out by the fact. I don’t entirely blame her. It’s weird if your thirteen-year-old friend comes over so she can wash dishes.

Eventually Jess puts her foot down and stops letting Mary invite herself over… so Mary moves on to Elizabeth. At first Liz doesn’t see what Jess is on about, but then eventually even she can’t help but notice that the twins are totes being used to get at their mother. And so the house becomes a No Mary Zone.

(At this point, I can’t help but think that this would’ve been a much cooler book if it turned out that Mary had a big ol’ crush on Alice. After all, we’re always being told how hot she is.)

Eventually Jess and Mary reconcile (largely because Jess realises she needs Mary’s help typing up the celebrity cookbook the Unicorns are putting together). The side plot of this one is that Liz and Co have submitted The Sweet Valley Sixers to a school newspaper competition. Only Jess manages to spill grape juice all over the ditto master—can’t you just smell the spirits reading that?—and decides to rewrite Liz’s story about career week herself.

Later that night, she overhears Ned and Alice talking about how Mary’s foster parents want to adopt her, so she decides to add that piece of good news to Caroline’s gossip column as well.

Of course, Liz is way less than pleased when she discovers that Jess’s typo-ridden article has been published under her name. Mary’s not happy either, because she doesn’t want to be adopted by her foster parents, because she’s still holding out hope that her mother will come and find her.

Turns out that Mary’s in care because her mother went away to take care of her sick grandmother, leaving her with a friend, Annie. Annie told her that her mother had died, moved them both to California, and then just left one day and never came back. Mary doesn’t want to be adopted because she just knows that her mother’s out there looking for her and that, one day, they’ll be reunited.

So we all know what happens next, right?

Liz is in the playground after school and thinks she sees her mother. Only, it turns out that it isn’t Alice, but just someone who looks like she could be Alice’s sister. The stranger asks Liz about Mary and asks Liz to take her to see Mary at her house. Now, here’s what I was talking about in the first paragraph: Liz agrees, because obviously this strange woman must know Mary, even though her story is extremely shifty. So Liz—a twelve-year-old—wanders off with a complete stranger, just because that stranger knew the name of her friend. WELCOME TO SWEET VALLEY. And Liz is meant to be the smart one.

Anyway, she takes the woman to Mary and then of course the woman turns out to be Mary’s mother, who’s been looking for her forever. And somehow despite the fact that the authorities know Mary’s story and it is quite obvious that Mary’s mother’s story would be matched up to it immediately, it actually took Annie getting arrested for everything to be resolved, because Mary’s name is really Robinson, not Giaccio and apparently she totally forgot her real name in the short time she was with Annie (riiiight) and the police didn’t bother looking for her real mother once they heard Mary’s story.

So ultimately this is a tale of gross incompetence in the police and social services departments of two states. Or, yanno, just plain implausible. Anyway, there’s the required happy ending and of course Mary goes straight back to living with her mother without any longwinded process of finding the mother a fit parent etc etc etc.

(Oh, and Liz realises that her original article was boring and that maybe she’s not the only person in the universe who can write, so edits it so that it includes part of Jessica’s version as well. The Sixers wins the contest, of course, because this is Sweet Valley.)

I feel like it’s too early in my re-read to call it, but I am pretty damn certain that this is my least liked Sweet Valley Twins book. It just drives me way too crazy trying to deal with the utter NOPE of its plot.

Moral of the Story? Foster kids always get the happy endings they dream of.


Back from the wilderness to make an exciting announcement. My piece “Ashes” will be in the next issue of the wonderful Grimdark Magazine, due out at the start of July. It’s a dark (Grimdark, even!) fantasy piece that looks at what comes after the Happily Ever After for Cinderella.

More once I have a cover to show you and links to purchase.

In other news, I have submitted my M.Litt thesis and am awaiting confirmation of passing that and completing the course. I’m also doing a lot of writing for Emerge Australia, an ME/CFS not-for-profit, and enjoying my Assistant Editor tasks for Luna Station Quarterly.

Recap: (SVH19) Showdown – Francine Pascal

Showdown coverThis basically has to be amazing. It’s about Lila and Jess and how they’re the original (and best) frenemies. The only way it could’ve been better is if Bruce were somehow fighting for Jack’s affections as well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Toward the end of Head Over Heels Lila meets Jack, a construction worker on a site near her father’s office. He seems far too attractive to really be working class, so she decides he must have a mysterious story behind his manual labouring job. Because no one smart or good looking ever has to worry about making rent, amiright?

Anyway, by the time Showdown begins, Lila’s completely enamoured of the Jack she’s created in her own mind. Jack doesn’t exactly help, fuelling her fantasies with talk of a privileged former life that seems to meet even Lila’s lofty standards. Is this Lila’s happily ever after?

You’re kidding, right? This is Sweet Valley.

You see, Jessica thinks Jack is pretty hot too. She and Cara have a pact not to go after the same boys, but this is Lila, which basically makes Jack even more attractive to Jess. She flirts outrageously with him, hands him her number, and is gleeful when he calls.

From this point on, Jack plays the two-timing cad role perfectly. He spends the weekends with Lila, and sees Jess mid-week. Jess’s relationship with him is a secret, which means she’s left to fume when Lila boasts about her perfect dates with Jack, only being appeased when Jack tells her that Lila has completely the wrong idea and that he only sees her as a friend.

Meanwhile, Jack tells Lila that he wants her to be his wife one day and she decides that means they’re engaged. (I want to roll my eyes at all this, but I remember what I was like at sixteen and I’m pretty sure I would have been just as gullible and ridiculous as Lila is in this book.) It’s a secret engagement, though, on Jack’s say-so. Wouldn’t want his other girlfriend finding out!

With all this build-up, you’d assume that the climax would involve Lila walking in on Jess and Jack. You’d be wrong. You’d be right if you assumed that Nicholas Morrow’s school friend would recognise Jack from back when they were all at Prep school together and Jack was a complete psychopath who flipped out on his girlfriend because he’s been unstable ever since he lost his entire family. You’d also be right if you assumed that Jessica would find a regular pharmacy of illegal drugs in Jack’s bathroom while visiting his hovel and would be stupid enough to confront him about them. You’d continue to be right if you assumed that everything would end with a knife fight and Jessica disarming Jack with a perfectly executed cheerleading kick.

Don’t let anyone tell you that cheerleading is a waste of time.

The subplot in this one is ~thematically linked~ to the main plot, which is quite surprising for Sweet Valley. Liz receives a group of photos to publish in the Oracle and it turns out that one of them shows her beloved Enid’s boyfriend cheating on her with Robin. Who used to be fat. When confronted, George and Robin say that it just happened and that they didn’t mean to cheat on Enid, or Robin’s boyfriend, Allen. Apparently they just fell and accidentally snogged for half an hour or something. It happens.

This is a thoroughly fun book, and not just because it’s Lila-centric. The plot is pleasantly tropey without being too predictable and Jack the Ripper Labourer is a great villain from the daytime soap mould.

Moral of the Story? Everyone cheats.

Recap: (SVT6) The New Girl – Francine Pascal

The New Girl coverSweet Valley Twins books have a fine tradition of bullying, so there’s no surprise at all to discover that the sixth book in the series involves the entire population of Sweet Valley Middle School ganging up on one girl. She’s a new girl, too, which is distinctly reminiscent of book two, but this time the reason for the vendetta is not a pair of scary (read: old and disabled) grandparents, but rather the behaviour of the girl herself. This is what makes The New Girl a much better book than The Haunted House. Brooke Dennis deserves the contempt of her peers. She’s a nasty little piece of work, quick to hate everything and everyone in her new town, and very happy to declare her feelings out loud.

If this were an Enid Blyton book, Brooke would be shown the error of her ways through kindness and gentle involvement in the activities of her new school. This is Sweet Valley, however, so the kids decide to teach Brooke a lesson. Jessica invents a third Wakefield sister: Jennifer, the identical triplet of Jess and Liz. The whole school quickly gets involved in the charade, identifying Jennifer by her ever-present hair bow and whispery voice.

As far as putting a mean girl in her place goes, what they do to Brooke is pretty minor. Pretending that the twins are triplets is the kind of thing I can see happening in real life, and the fact that they think the best way to humiliate her is to make her chair collapse is very sixth grade. Okay, it’s on her birthday, which is not so nice, given that twelve-year-olds actually care about birthdays. But on the whole, no worse than her calling Jess a cry-baby after ruining what is probably the only school assignment she ever gave a damn about. (And, while we’re on the subject, who ever took Jessica for a Nancy Drew fan? It’s the eighties, so long before Gossip Girl, but I feel like she would’ve been more of a Judy Blume girl. Can’t you just picture her and Lila giggling about the rude bits in Forever?)

The worst thing that they do to Brooke is make her think that someone actually likes her. For the first time since her mother left, which shows just how unlikeable she’s been acting for a very long time. But there’s the twist, and it’s an expected one if you know anything at all about these books. Brooke is not nasty just because she’s a terrible person! She’s actually a tortured soul, a poor-little-rich-girl who is lonely because her mother has a new partner and a new baby and her father is a top Hollywood writer who is too busy making money to be around as much as she’d like. So, basically, she’s Lila. Minus the style.

Of course, the moment everyone finds this out, they’re completely repentant and decide to throw Brooke a surprise birthday party, because now they like her. I don’t know about you, but I was not even remotely that evolved at the age of twelve. My response would’ve been more along the line of “sucks to be her, but she’s still a rude cow”. Then again, I never went to school with the daughter of a Hollywood big-shot, so perhaps that’s where the difference lies.

It’s all quite shallow, but rather enjoyable anyway. It’s always good when Liz gets involved with Jessica’s dastardly schemes, instead of just tut-tutting from the sidelines. I feel like she’s much more genuinely loyal to Jess in the SVT books, and I like that.

Moral of the Story? Nasty people are really just lonely lost souls.

Recap: (SVT5) Sneaking Out – Francine Pascal

Sneaking Out coverThe first five Sweet Valley Twins books make for a lot of difficult reading, and not because of the vocabulary in them. We’re already had to deal with orphan bullying, gross injustice and tomboy teasing, and now the series throws in lying to sweet old ladies and disliking sweet old dogs.

Jessica desperately wants to go to the Johnny Buck concert. Unfortunately her parents won’t let her and, while that wouldn’t stop her, she’s also broke. She needs to come up with $25—fast. The trouble is, the only job that’s on offer involves dog-sitting for a dear old lady—and Jessica’s terrified of dogs.

Of course, this is Jessica, so she lies to Mrs Bracken and says that she absolutely adores dogs, gets the job, and proceeds to make her parents, Liz and Steven do most of the work. Meanwhile, she’s telling the Unicorns and Bruce that she and Johnny Buck are tight, which is just a slight exaggeration on “he threw his cap to Liz and me last time he was in town”.

The night of the concert arrives and Jessica is all set to head to Lila’s so she can sneak off to the show. But then Mrs Bracken calls and says she’s going to be late to pick up Sally the dog. Anxious to leave, Jess ties Sally outside for Liz to deal with and disappears off to the concert.

By the time Elizabeth gets home, Sally’s gone. Liz and Amy search everywhere for her, but she’s nowhere to be found. Mrs Bracken arrives and is traumatised because Sally’s all she has now that her husband’s dead. The Wakefields head back out to search some more, and finally Sally is found—safely in her own home, having taken herself back there and in through her doggy door.

In the meantime, Jess has had a thoroughly unsatisfying concert experience. Instead of making Johnny an honorary Unicorn, she realises that half of the girls at the concert are wearing caps just like hers and that she’s nothing special to him after all. She doesn’t even get a chance to lick her wounds at Lila’s before her mother and Liz turn up to tell her off.

Alice wants Jess to pay back the $25 she earned for dog-sitting but, of course, she can’t do that because she spent it all on a concert ticket. Actually seeming to be genuinely remorseful for a change, she admits everything to Mrs Bracken, who was apparently a wild child in her own youth, henna hair and all. Her punishment is to walk Sally morning and night for a whole month—and this time Elizabeth has no intention of helping out.

As I said earlier, it’s hard to watch Jessica manipulating an elderly lady for a quick buck, but at the same time I understand the mentality, because when I was around her age I would’ve probably done much worse if it meant I could’ve gone to the Guns n’ Roses concert my parents banned me from seeing. And this time around, there really is a consequence to Jess’s actions. Not just a punishment, but also a genuine realisation that her behaviour’s been pretty shoddy.

I also find Elizabeth more likeable than usual in this book. She’s not a complete goody-two-shoes for a change. She covers up for her sister and helps her out, but grows a spine by the end and refuses to take on any more of Jess’s dirty work.

Moral of the Story? Don’t make commitments you can’t or won’t keep.

Recap: (SVT4) Choosing Sides – Francine Pascal

Choosing Sides coverIt says something about the last book that I tend to get through this one and think “oh well, the bullying could’ve been worse”. I guess it helps that this time it’s Amy Sutton and Ken Matthews being bullied, instead of, yanno, an orphan and her disabled grandfather.

This time, the Unicorns have a bee in their collective bonnets because Amy has the gall to consider trying out for the Boosters, the cheerleading team that the Unicorns have decided to start. Because teachers are utterly unfair (cough), they’re forced to hold open try-outs, which means that undesirable characters like Amy get to launch an attack on Unicorn territory. Or something.

Sweet Valley Middle School also happens to be holding try-outs for the basketball team right when the Unicorns are holding their cheer auditions. Ken Matthews (who is the shortest boy in school at this point, not the buff football captain he’ll end up being) is eager to follow in his father’s footsteps and be on the team, but Bruce Patman finds the idea hilarious. To be fair, Ken doesn’t exactly demonstrate any talent for the game, even putting his height aside.

Elizabeth being Elizabeth, she has to interfere, so she invites Ken to hers to have Steven give him some pointers. Ken continues to be dire, however, until Liz teaches him the trick of practising with a tennis ball first. Bruce Patman happens to ride past (why does he spend so much time riding his bike in the non-mansion area of town?) and catches the two of them together. He then launches a rumour about the two of them dating, much to Jessica’s horror. After all, if people think Elizabeth is dating Ken, what will they think about her? (Nothing at all, you’d presume, but this is Jess.)

The Unicorns are furious at Amy’s refusal to drop out of the Booster trials, so they decide to up their bullying a little. They fake letters from Amy to Ken and Ken to Amy, saying that they should both drop out of their respective auditions, throwing in a declaration of love from Amy, just for good measure. Amy isn’t fooled for a moment when she receives her letter, but Ken is completely freaked out, as he likes Amy because she isn’t “mushy”, like all girls generally are.

Once again, it’s Liz to the rescue, thanks to a bit of eavesdropping in the girls’ loos.

Amy and Ken both stand up to their bullies and show up for their respective trials. The Unicorns try to throw Amy, but she and Ken both rise to the occasion and prove to be absolute stars. Everyone is suitably chastened and the Unicorns are suddenly fine with Amy being on the team. Despite her ‘stringy’ hair and the fact that she is—gasp—a tomboy!

This is quite a fun book, with parallel plots that offset each other quite nicely. Although there’s still no real punishment for the bullies in this one, at least they’re made to see the error of their pre-expectations about Amy and Ken, if not the error of their nasty behaviour. On another level, it’s also a sporting underdog story, and boy am I a sucker for those.

I wish Elizabeth would stop whining about how she’s losing Jessica, though. They live together. Can’t Jess spend five minutes with the unicorns without Liz freaking out?

Moral of the Story? Don’t let bullies stop you going after what you want.

Recap: (SVT3) The Haunted House – Francine Pascal

The Haunted House coverThis is an extremely difficult book to read because it’s full of terrible bullying and doesn’t even resolve the bullying storyline in a satisfying manner.

All the kids in Sweet Valley know that the Mercandy house is haunted and Mrs Mercandy is a witch. So when Elizabeth and Jessica discover that a girl their age has moved in, they assume that she must be a witch as well.

When Nora Mercandy starts attending school at Sweet Valley Middle School, however, Elizabeth begrudgingly offers to show her around, and soon realises that Nora is just a normal girl—one she genuinely likes.

The Unicorns are not as easily persuaded. Lila in particular has a real vendetta against Nora after Nora is foolish enough to beat Lila in a game of tennis. She gives Nora an expensive pen as a reward for winning their bet about the tennis match, and then promptly accuses Nora of stealing it.

Nora, unaware of the extent of the rumours about the Mercandy house, invites Elizabeth, Amy and the Unicorns over so that she can introduce them to her grandmother and hopefully stop the bullying. Oh yeah, and the reason she’s living with her grandparents? Her mother has just died, leaving her an orphan. Just the kind of kid who needs to be dealing with revolting peers right now.

Nora’s schoolmates turn up, but before her grandmother can make an appearance, a stiff, shuffling man appears and scares the lot of them away. Because bad speech and awkward gait always indicate a zombie, amiright?

Things get worse for Nora. The Unicorns make her into their slave, threatening that they’ll plant Lila’s wallet in her locker and dob her in if she doesn’t do their bidding at all times. And then suddenly all the bullying stops and they start being sweet as punch to her. Obviously it’s a trap, but Nora’s just so relieved that they’re not making her go on cookie runs any more that she goes along with it.

Turns out they just want her at Lila’s halloween party so the boys can completely trash the Mercandy house without Nora being there. She discovers their true intentions and runs home, with the entire party following, for some reason. They even all barge right into the house, because what’s a little trespassing to add to all the bullying?

Inside, everything is covered in magician posters and they learn that Nora’s grandfather used to be a super famous magician, but suffered a stroke ten years ago, meaning that now he is partially paralysed and has trouble speaking. Oh hey, not a zombie after all! Everyone decides that Nora and the Mercandys are actually really cool.

And, for some reason, the Mercandys are fine with that.

See, this is the big issue with this book, and the reason it’s really not one of my favourite SVT books. The kids are absolutely horrible to a girl who has recently been orphaned and to two elderly people who are poor and struggling with major disability. They are complete monsters. And somehow they don’t get punished for their bad deeds at all. No one tells them that they’re pathologically cruel—they don’t hate Nora any more, so that’s the important thing, right? Ugh.

The Sweet Valley books usually feel a need to punish Jessica for the smallest things, but when really nasty stuff goes on, like it does in this book, it’s just shrugged off. Uncool.

Lila’s my favourite character, but even I can’t stand her in this one.

Moral of the Story? Bullies will get off scot free.

Recap: (SVT2) Teacher’s Pet – Francine Pascal

Teacher's Pet coverI really struggle with all forms of injustice, including in fictional form. That means that I find this an extremely difficult book to read. But yet I have done so multiple times, because I am a masochist with an unhealthy love for Sweet Valley.

In the first book of the series, Elizabeth and Jessica start taking ballet classes. Jess immediately gets on Madame André’s bad side by dressing fit for the Xanadu ensemble, leading to their teacher loving and praising every little thing that Elizabeth does, while ignoring Jessica completely.

It hasn’t improved by the start of Teacher’s Pet, and it’s about to get even worse. Madame André announces that the class will be taking part in a ballet recital, and they’re going to perform the ballet Coppelia. They’re a beginner’s class, but sure. We can run with that.

Naturally, Jessica wants to play the lead, Swanilda. Although Elizabeth’s the teacher’s pet, Jess is certain that Madame André will have to realise that Jess is easily the best dancer in the class, and the obvious choice for the role. The Unicorns are just as certain, because Jessica’s the only Unicorn in the ballet class, so who else could play the lead?

Audition day rolls around, and just after Liz and Alice head off to do some shopping, Madame André calls to let them know that the audition time as been pushed forward. Jessica contemplates heading to the audition without letting Elizabeth know about it, but her conscience gets the better of her and she leaves a note, all the while hoping that Liz won’t get home in time to find it. After all, if Elizabeth doesn’t audition, she can’t get the lead role!

Of course, Liz turns up just in time and, very predictably, is given the lead. Even more telling is the fact that Jess isn’t given any of the minor solos either, despite those girls giving auditions far worse than her own. Jessica is upset due to the injustice of it all, and Elizabeth is upset because Jessica isn’t happy for her (and because Amy blabbed about Jess suggesting that Liz may not have turned up because she couldn’t be bothered—oops!). The twins give each other the silent treatment for days.

Throughout all this, their parents are firmly on Elizabeth’s side. Remember all that stuff I said about Alice demonstrating good parenting in book one? Not here. At no point does she (or Ned) actually sit down and hear Jessica’s point of view. Okay, so most of the time Jess is in the wrong. But this time she isn’t! INJUSTICE!

Finally, Jessica sees Elizabeth practising her solo, complete with multiple errors, and feels sorry enough for her that she pushes aside her angst for long enough to show Liz how to do the necessary moves. Elizabeth realises that Jessica really has been the better dancer all along, and starts plotting.

On the night of the recital, she pretends to twist her ankle, meaning that Jessica has to go on in her place. Madame André raves about the amazing performance and about how talented Elizabeth is, the Wakefields point out that it was actually Jessica, and Madame André immediately sees the error of her ways and is greatly apologetic.

Everything works out in the end (this is a kids’ book, after all), but wow is it painful getting to that ending. No one will believe Jess and she’s actually telling the truth this time. (It’s rare, but it sometimes happens.) Worse still, she’s the one who desperately loves dancing; Liz is more interested in her newspaper.


Begrudgingly, I have to say that this is one of the best SVT books, simply because it makes me feel so much. Even if it’s bad feels.

I would look forward to wiping them away with book three, but that one has bad feels too. The trials of loving Sweet Valley.

Moral of the Story? Justice will be served.

Recap: (SVH18) Head Over Heels – Francine Pascal

Head Over Heels coverBruce Patman is actually in love—with someone other than himself! He’s fallen for Regina Morrow, the rich, beautiful new girl, who is a recent cover model and the most inspirational of all the inspirationally disabled girls. (In case you’ve forgotten, she’s deaf, but can read lips and speak perfectly. A nice, non-confronting disability that doesn’t inconvenience anyone but her.) Now that he and Regina are together, Bruce has changed. He’s opening car doors for Regina and buying her expensive jewellery and even inviting her to the Patman mansion for dinner. (He still wears a teeny-tiny bathing suit, though, so it’s not like everything has changed.)

Regina’s in love too. She’s never so much as kissed a boy before Bruce, and now she’s head-over-heels. But just as she gets her first boyfriend and starts to really feel like she’s a part of the Sweet Valley crowd, her family drops an amazing bombshell on her: there’s a doctor in Switzerland who should be able to give her the ability to hear. The downside is that she’ll have to move there for an entire year, leaving behind Bruce and the first time she’s felt like a ~normal~ teenager.

Regina, being a teenage girl, decides that staying with Bruce is more important than being able to hear. Her family try to convince her otherwise, even bringing a former patient of the doctor to stay with them to show Regina what she’ll be missing out on (and to enable a brief mistaken identity side plot in which Todd, yet again, suspects Liz of cheating on him and no one thinks that perhaps it could be an identical twin sister situation).

Meanwhile, Jess is trying to break Regina and Bruce up, because she has a term paper bet going with Lila that they’ll be over before the charity carnival the SVH students are putting on. She just happens to let it slip that Ken thinks that Bruce is only dating Regina to boost his popularity in order to become president of the centenary committee. Now that is a dedicated campaign tactic.

It’s Sweet Valley, so of course Bruce and Regina have a massive bust-up due to their complete failure to communicate. Regina decides to go to Switzerland for treatment after all and it’s left to Liz to explain to Bruce why Regina was so upset with him. The new Bruce is loving and selfless, so of course he puts Regina’s health before his own selfish desire to be with her, and ensures that she goes abroad anyway.

It’s all so sugary, I have a toothache.

As much as I prefer the real Bruce to the lovestruck changeling he was replaced by as soon as Regina walked into his life, this is actually one of the better-written books, I think. The inspirationally disabled trope gets really old really quickly when it comes to Regina (especially when she manages to read lips that she can’t even see), but she and Bruce are actually a likeable pairing and I do appreciate the fact that Regina’s health and future are shown to be more important than her brand-new high school romance.

Moral of the Story? Love turns cheating players into crying pussycats.

Recap: (SVT1) Best Friends – Francine Pascal

Best Friends coverThe various Sweet Valley series aren’t exactly known for being excellent literature. Entertaining? Absolutely. Edifying? Not so much. That said, the very first Sweet Valley Twins book is actually good junior fiction.

Elizabeth and Jessica have always dressed alike and done everything together, because that’s what identical twins do. But now they’re in middle school and developing different interests and groups of friends. Jess is starting to notice boys (Bruce Patman in particular, because of course) and wants to join the super-exclusive Unicorn Club, while Liz doesn’t understand the appeal of boys and is excited about starting a sixth grade newspaper with her non-exclusive friends Julie and Amy.

Elizabeth basically freaks out about this, because she’s scared that she’s losing her best friend. It doesn’t help when a Unicorn Club pledge leads to Jessica having a complete makeover and choosing non-matching clothes for the first time ever. And, once Jess actually gets into the club, Liz feels like she has to be a part of it too, even though she has no interest in their gossip-and-boys-filled discussion topics.

The Unicorns don’t really think Elizabeth is a good fit, but to keep Jess in the club, they allow her to pledge—and all she has to do is play a prank on resident fat girl, Lois Waller. Liz refuses, because it’s Not Nice, but Jess secretly pretends to be her and successfully completes the pledge task on Elizabeth’s behalf. Liz is horrified when she finds out what’s happened. She makes Jessica apologise and helps Lois to get revenge on the Unicorns. Well, mostly on Lila, for some reason.

In the end, Elizabeth realises that it’s okay that she and Jessica have different priorities now, especially as that means she gets to do what she wants, instead of just doing whatever Jess suggests.

So why is it good? Firstly, it’s a well executed coming-of-age plot. There’s a lot in here about how it’s important to be true to who you are, even if that means stepping out of your safety zone every once in a while. While most readers aren’t going to be identical twins, many will have long-term friendships that begin to change as they approach puberty, and it’s good to reassure kids that it’s okay if you like things that your best friend doesn’t like, and okay to have friends that aren’t shared.

Additionally, Alice Wakefield is a strong and helpful presence throughout the book. Liz really needs her mother to help her to understand that Jessica’s new friends and interests don’t have to affect their closeness, and to encourage her to develop her own social group and identity that doesn’t revolve around her sister. It’s good to have that adult voice of reason to counter Elizabeth’s fears and Jessica’s standard obliviousness.

Oh, and it’s made very clear that playing the prank on Lois was unkind. There’s a definite distinction in the book between Jessica’s pledges, which don’t single out an individual for embarrassment, and Elizabeth’s, which does.

Best Friends is a very good introduction to the Sweet Valley Twins series. And just a pretty good book overall.

Moral of the Story? It’s okay to be your own person.

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