Sweet Valley, Fresh Hell

3/26/08: Plot 307

I did not mean this to be a hiatus. I just got through the first weekend of Kurosawa Fest, which is the latest installment of this thing my boyfriend does wherein he collects a director’s complete works and then watches them all according to a rigid schedule in a multi-weekend endurance event. So far it’s been exhausting and life-altering at the same time. I really do not recommend watching Kurosawa’s earliest works on bootleg Chinese DVDs that have subtitles translated from Japanese to Chinese to English by way of Babelfish, because all the philosophical dialogue about Judo mastery is at best hilarious (“Doing this stupid could make the karate down“) and at worst incomprehensible. But even those movies were great to watch in their own way, and we made it to the seriously awesome stuff like Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Six-word-summaries of all the films so far can be found here. We also have a Twitter for even more vicarious real-time action in case you care (and, I know, you probably don’t).

* * *

Speaking of translations (sort of!) I heard yesterday that Random House is reissuing the Sweet Valley High books with a few strategic updates from their 80s incarnation. The Wakefield Twins are a “perfect size 4″ now, instead of the “perfect size 6″ that they were in 1983. It’s not clear whether they’re actually skinnier or whether vanity sizing is in effect, because of course medical science has yet to invent a reliable scale for fictional characters, but still, it’s kind of a big deal.

I definitely see Mo’s point about how the change attempts to remain faithful to the books. The fact that the girls are “perfect” remains the same; the only real difference is in the number that denotes perfection. Of course, it’s a stunningly barfy notion that perfection should be a size at all, and that’s a whole other can of worms that I’ll let someone else open, but at any rate, one can argue that really, the girls’ sizes were changed so that the girls could remain the same—perfectly perfect according to whatever standard currently applies.

And actually, that’s what I find even more insulting than the standards themselves—this blind stubborn quest to make the books feel precisely the same to a 12-year-old girl in 2008 as they did to a 12 year-old-girl in the 80s. What, exactly, is wrong with having some 2008 preteen figure out, by way of reading Sweet Valley High, that the idea of perfection was two sizes bigger twenty-five years ago than it is now? Is Random House afraid that if she’s allowed to think—just for a moment—about what that means, that she won’t be able to enjoy the book on its own terms? Or do they assume she can’t think at all? Does the current blatant non-perfection of “Size 6″ totally preclude this kid from understanding how Jessica and Elizabeth are envied, just because Size 6 may not be particularly enviable to her? Did she also read Little House on the Prairie and just have no freaking idea why someone would be jealous of Mary Ingalls, who only had “golden curls” and not a sweet rack or awesome clavicles? Just how many middle-grade and YA books published before 2005 are presumably now utterly confusing and unreadable to her because they’re about these so-called pretty pudgy girls who lumber around wearing culottes and listening to “Walkmans” and using pay phones?

I know how codgery this makes me sound, but, ahem, back in my day I found my way around all manner of inexplicable details in Judy Blume books (who “sets” their hair? why does everyone wear hats and live in New Jersey?) while still managing to relate to the characters and the stories. As an editor, I try to have a pretty good sense of what kids can figure out for themselves, and I suspect the people behind SVH ’08 do, too. I bet they know better, in other words.

Of course, they also know how to get people to give a shit about Sweet Valley High 25 years later, which is to update the books just enough to push a few buttons about body image issues, send out some press releases to fan the flames, and then watch the fun and indignation that ensues. But what do you expect? It’s so Jessica of them! Ugh.

For extra credit, feel free to speculate about the standards by which the Wakefield Twins will be “perfect” in the 2033 reissue of Sweet Valley High. “As Elizabeth twirled her size 2 figure, the sun gleamed off her flawless Brazilian.” Because isn’t that where they’re headed at this rate? Sweet Valley indeed!


  1. says

    I always thought updating these books was weird and wrong anyway. You know they took the belt out of “Are You There God…” and replaced it with a good ol’ maxi pad. As though making the book happen in a different era changes the fundamentals of the book. There’s no faith in the youth!

  2. Wendy says

    Yeah, I think the whole premise for updating Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, was that a lot of girls still read that book to learn about periods. But I think they could have served that purpose differently by just including a special note at the end of the book. Changing the text implies these books have a certain duty to be “responsible” for their audience, which I think is a very slippery slope.

    Similarly, while I think the people behind SVH ’08 are being pretty shitty by taking advantage of a controversial topic in order to get attention for these books, I don’t want to call them irresponsible.

  3. ashley says

    I’ll say that when I read Are You There God… I could not for the life of me understand what in the world she was talking about with the belt. I was a chunky little girl growing up and I was in fear that when I had my period, the belt wouldn’t fit me. Too bad there wasn’t any internet (or wikipedia!) back then.

  4. says

    I agree with Liz — I didn’t know what the heck the ‘belt’ was all about, but I figured it out. And maybe a supplement or something would work.

    I think it’s terrible to “update” books like that. Yes, Judy Blume wrote for children, but she wasn’t writing an instruction manual that could have the pages swapped out every few years. She was telling a STORY. If it was a technical book, then okay. But otherwise leave it alone! (unless, of course, Ms. Blume herself instigated the changes)

    The Sweet Valley thing is just gross — that they were even a “perfect size” anything to begin with. We knew they were fabulously beautiful and popular and well-to-do, and the cover art showed thin girls so you envisioned them that way. But did it really matter the specifics of it? No. It didn’t then and it doesn’t now.

    And now that I think back on it, weren’t most of those books pretty terrible to begin with? I remember being so frustrated because they were thin books and there were valuable pages wasted in every one telling me over and over and over about their hair, their eyes, and their goddam spanish tile. :)

  5. says

    I have to say that I read all of those kids/YA books when I was a yout’ and took me forever to pick up on the fact that they were already twenty years old at that point. Just slapping a new cover on them, in which the Fourth Grade Nothing or whoever was wearing typical clothes of the early ’80s, totally pulled the wool over my eyes.

    Another sad SVH change is that their red Fiat is now a red Jeep Cherokee. ARE LITTLE RED SPORTS CARS SUDDENLY UNCOOL NOW MY GOD WHAT KIND OF WORLD DO WE LIVE IN.

  6. says

    Well said, Wendy.

    I used to get very frustrated, as a young teenager, spotting where Scholastic had unevenly Anglicised the Babysitters’ Club books. Earth to Scholastic: British kids watch American films and TV. They know what diapers are. And sidewalks. And changing Claudia from a “bad student” to a “bad pupil” makes her sound delinquent instead of unstudious, which I don’t think was intentional.

    It’s been going on for a long time, though. I read PG Wodehouse’s early school stories in an edition where all the references to, say, famous sportsmen had been updated from the early 1900s to the 1950s and left there, achieving a double whammy of unfamiliarity and anachronism.

    I remember asking my mother about the belt in AYTG?IMM, but I’m with you – there is nothing actually wrong with coming across something you don’t know now and again. It encourages you to find out.

  7. Art says

    To your point about Judy Blume, is a “Ladies’ Sanitary Belt” mentioned in Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret any more or less familiar to an 80’s young adult than one from the 2000’s?

  8. says

    God, Wendy, you are gonna drive me to sign up for a Twitter account (I have thus far resisted the temptation). Why must you be so flippin’ funny? Yes I care.
    Great post, BTW. I am a kid’s librarian and I am so sick of the body dysphoric inducing crap that is flung at girls today. I don’t have a problem with older series books being “freshened up” and reissued, but the 08 SVH clothing size reduction thing is really indicative of the twisted push-me pull-ya thinking that girls are confronted with all too frequently in today’s media. Why can’t older series be made MORE girl-friendly in newer editions instead of less? Sigh.

  9. says

    This is a great post.

    The only way the SVH thing makes sense to me is that the publisher recognizes its not peddling “literature, but some other commercial product, an accessory it can sell to the current generation as something “new” and “improved,” but “just like your mom remembers it.”

  10. victoria says

    “Of course, it’s a stunningly barfy notion that perfection should be a size at all.” Right on, sister.

  11. says

    I just got through the first weekend of Kurosawa Fest, which is the latest installment of this thing my boyfriend does wherein he collects a director’s complete works and then watches them all according to a rigid schedule in a multi-weekend endurance event.

    Are you living my life or something? We just had a Tarkovsky Fest. Again.

  12. Wendy says

    Wow, Chris always threatens to have a Tarvovsky Fest! How much did your heart rate slow down while watching those films?!!!

  13. says

    Rock on, girl.

    I never liked the Sweet Valley High books– the characters felt about as real as the lost city of Atlantis. I thought they were superficial back in 1990… I’m sure they’ll continue to be superficial in their new and improved 2008 size 4 asses.

    Sweet Valley High = Lame

    Going from a size 6 to a size 4 = Lamer

    Altering literature for the sake of vanity = Lamest

  14. says

    At that rate, the 2033 version will feature the microscopic Wakefield twins and their excellent adventures in someone’s digestive tract. Gag.

  15. Katie says

    I read every one of those books when I was a kid and I still have a twinge of recognition when I hear someone say they are a size 6…. Changing the “perfect” size to 4 from 6 is ridiculous. Way to implore pre-teens to reach out and embrace their future bulimia, Random house!

  16. says

    Wow- I am disturbed by the re-sizing of Sweet Valley High, and, as you see, catching up to this post late in the game. Your post is both thought-provoking and frankly hilarious. I’ll be linking to it on my blog, if you don’t mind. :-)

  17. Dana says

    I hated just seeing the updated illustrations in Beverly Cleary’s books. That made me really sad. I grew up with those books, even though they were already outdated by the time I read them, and the illustrations were just as much a part of the books as the text was.

    I read AYTG?IMM before I ever got my period and only had a vague understanding of how pads worked so it wasn’t a big deal. Actually, my stepmom had an old sanitary napkin belt she’d kept for God knows how many years (yes, clean) and had given it to me as part of my stash, so I even knew what one looked like. (For reference’s sake, I was born in 1974.) But she hadn’t had a period since 1978 so she was a little behind the times and probably wasn’t completely sure what was available either.

    Truth be told, given the current trend of using cloth pads, I think there’s room to bring back the belt too, at least for women who don’t mind pads but hate underwear, or women who have bad luck with the pad moving around due to a lack of adhesive strips on one side.

    End digression. Whoa. I never got much into the SVM books anyway, really couldn’t relate to them, but thanks for giving me another reason to never introduce them to my daughter. I think I’ll go for the American Girl books instead.

  18. Jayne Mendius says

    Great SVH post. You are right on as usual, and shame on those that should know better but are pandering to the worst parts of adolescent female reality. I’m over getting worked up about this shit, and grateful I have a cool nine year old daughter who I can talk about these issues with. You are a jewel, Wendy McClure. Thanks again for your awesome blog.