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12 of the Sweet Valley High Books' Most Ridiculous Plotlines

Many of the Wakefield twins' adventures in Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series are typical teenage stuff: Young love, drama at school, difficulty at home. Sometimes, though, the plotlines of the SVH books were, in a word, insane. Here are a few of our favorites.

Note: It’s impossible to cover every ridiculous thing that happened in these books, so some information has been left out. For more complete explanations, check out Shannon’s Sweet Valley High Blog.

1. ELIZABETH’S BEST FRIEND IS PARALYZED IN A PLANE CRASH ... THEN IS QUICKLY UNPARALYZED.

The Book: Crash Landing! (No. 20)

Enid, Elizabeth’s best friend, is dating George, who just got his pilot’s license. He takes her along on his first solo flight, where he plans to break up with her so he can date a girl named Robin—but before he can do that, the engine dies, and the plane crashes in a lake. Enid saves George, but in the process hurts her back and is paralyzed from the waist down. George decides not to break up with Enid while she’s hurt (how nice of him!). Enid gets an operation on her spine, and goes to the school dance in a wheelchair. As she watches George dance with Robin, she can tell they're in love—which of course bums her out.

A few days after the dance, Liz invites Enid over and asks her to watch a kid named Teddy while he plays by the pool. Teddy falls in, and Enid is able to stand up, jump into the pool, and save him. She can walk again! It was all part of a plan hatched by Elizabeth; Teddy was her accomplice. Liz receives a standing ovation at a restaurant for so brilliantly orchestrating Enid’s recovery. Enid, meanwhile, decides she just wants George to be happy, and sets him free so he can date Robin.

2. JESSICA JOINS A CULT.

The Book: Kidnapped by the Cult! (No. 82)

Jessica gets grounded for her awful grades for three weeks; on her first day out, she’s annoyed when her boyfriend, Sam, plans to go to a dirt bike race instead of spending the day with her. She goes to the mall to mope, where she meets some kids from a group called The Good Friends. They tell her that they, too, used to be sad and mopey—until they met Adam Marvel, who took them in. They invite Jessica to dinner, and it’s not long before she’s sucked in, ditching her flashy clothes for more subdued outfits and helping the group collect money for charity. Even when Jessica finds out that The Good Friends isn’t donating that money to charity, she still can't be convinced that the group, and dreamy Adam Marvel, are bad.

Concerned that Jessica is in over her head, Elizabeth poses as her sister and infiltrates The Good Friends, where one member, Susan, tells her to get out while she can. Not long after, Adam tells Jessica that Susan left, and the group is going to move to another town. He wants her to come with them. Jessica packs a bag and goes to The Good Friends’ house, but hesitates when Adam asks her to get in the van with the rest of the group. Just in time, Sam, Elizabeth, and Todd, Liz's boyfriend, show up to stop her; Sam finds Susan, who’s actually an undercover reporter, bound and gagged in Good Friends’ HQ, and Todd has called the police. Adam is arrested; everything returns to normal.

3. JESSICA SPIKES ELIZABETH'S PUNCH AT PROM; LIZ DRIVES DRUNK, CRASHES, AND KILLS JESSICA'S BOYFRIEND.

The Books: A Night to Remember (Manga Edition No. 2), The Morning After (No. 95), The Arrest (No. 96), The Verdict (No. 97)

Elizabeth and Jessica are both vying for queen of the jungle-themed prom. It's not just the title at stake: The winner will get a trip to Brazil. On prom night, Jessica wants Elizabeth to lose, so she spikes her punch with booze she charms from another student. Elizabeth gets drunk and withdraws from the race for queen, and Jessica wins. After a commotion is caused by some uninvited kids from a rival school, Liz and Sam leave the dance together, with Elizabeth behind the wheel of the twins’ Jeep. They get into a car accident, and Sam is killed.

Over the next three books, the Wakefield family deals with the fallout: Elizabeth, who can’t remember anything about the crash, is arrested and spends the night in a holding cell with a prostitute; she’s eventually released, but is charged with involuntary manslaughter. Jessica, who wants Liz to go down for Sam’s death, alienates her from her best friend Enid and manipulates Todd into making out and going out on dates. Liz has nightmares about someone who looks just like Jessica, but with dark hair, who is trying to kill her (more on that later).

Eventually, Elizabeth goes on trial. The defense doesn’t have much of a case, because Liz can’t remember anything—but then, on the last day, a surprise witness named Gilbert comes forward to say he was out drunk driving that night and caused Elizabeth to crash. In the most unbelievable twist in the story, Liz—who was, in fact, driving with a lot of alcohol in her system—is acquitted. (Jessica’s role in the whole affair isn’t revealed until a few books later, when Liz has a number of dreams about the prom that show Jess spiking her punch. They eventually make up, despite the fact that Jessica is clearly the worst sister ever.)

4. A DOPPELGANGER PLOTS TO MURDER ELIZABETH—AND TAKE OVER HER LIFE.

The Books: The Morning After (No. 95), The Arrest (No. 96), The Verdict (No. 97), The Wedding (No. 98), Beware the Baby-Sitter (No. 99), The Evil Twin (No. 100)

Margo, like the Wakefield twins, is 16. She’s plotting her escape from her foster home in New York. Margo sets the house on fire to kill her foster sister—who saw not just the money Margo had saved up, but also the bus schedule Margo was reading—and takes off for Cleveland, where she gets a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. Eventually, she drowns the boy she’s been nannying for, steals money from his parents, and heads to California, where she thinks her real family lives. For some reason, the bus Margo is on heads to Houston, where Margo gets off and sees a newspaper with a photo of Elizabeth on the front, along with a story about her trial. Realizing she looks just like the girl on the newspaper, Margo comes up with a plan: Kill Elizabeth Wakefield and take over her life. (Never mind that this plan doesn't make a whole lot of sense if Elizabeth goes to jail. This chick is crazy!)

Margo heads to Sweet Valley, where she goes to the mall and buys a blonde wig. She befriends a dirt bike rider named James, who she pays to win a competition Jessica is putting on in Sam’s memory; he regularly gives her information on the Wakefields. Margo, meanwhile, kills a server at a catering company so she can get a job there and work the Fowler wedding—the better to observe the twins. Then she begins posing as Jessica and Liz regularly with their friends, boyfriends, and parents. This all culminates with Jessica, Liz, and Margo fighting over a butcher knife in the Fowler’s pool house. Margo is pushed through a window by the older brother of the little boy she killed in Cleveland—she framed him for the little boy’s death, but he’s been tailing her across the country. Her jugular is slashed by glass, and everyone thinks she’s dead.

5. THAT CRAZY DOPPELGANGER HAS A TWIN WHO IS ALSO CRAZY!

The Book: Return of the Evil Twin (Manga edition No. 6)

A year after the events of The Evil Twin, Nora, Margo’s twin, shows up in Sweet Valley to seek revenge for her sister’s death. But guess what: Margo’s alive! She managed to overpower (and presumably kill) the paramedics who took her “body” away, and hid for a year, spying on the Wakefield twins. These crazy twins hatch a plot to kill both Wakefield twins and take over their lives. They begin posing as the twins with their friends and boyfriends, with the main goal of making the twins hate each other, just like they did after the jungle prom. Eventually, Nora goes to the Wakefield house and kills a sleeping Jessica. Later, she finds out that Margo had kidnapped Jessica and was posing as her, sleeping in her bed, when Nora got all stabby. Nora killed her own twin! Jessica is alive and is saved by Elizabeth's heroics. Nora gets arrested, and all returns to normal.

6. LIZ FALLS IN LOVE WITH A “WEREWOLF” ...

The Books: Love and Death in London (No. 104), A Date with a Werewolf (No. 105), Beware the Wolfman (No. 106)

The twins head to London for one of their many newspaper internships. Murder victims keep popping up with their throats ripped out, and the twins are put on the crime beat to investigate. Though she’s still dating Todd, Liz goes out with a co-worker named Luke Shephard, who manages to convince her that werewolves are real. Jessica starts dating Robert Pembroke. His father, Lord Pembroke, is a werewolf expert. He also owns the newspaper where the twins are interning, and has been suppressing stories about the murders because he believes that Robert is the werewolf.

But it turns out that it’s Luke, not Robert, who is the “werewolf.” The product of an affair between a woman named Annabelle and Lord Pembroke, he’s been blacking out, dressing up as a werewolf, killing people, and framing his brother for the crimes—which we find out later, from his diary. There’s a climactic fight between Luke, Robert (who has a silver bullet to kill the werewolf, naturally), a cop named Bumpo, and Rene, a friend from when the twins went to France on Spring Break, who's interning at the French embassy for the summer and has been following Elizabeth to protect her. Luke is shot, his werewolf mask falls off, and he dies.

7. … AND JESSICA DATES A VAMPIRE.

The Books: Tall, Dark, and Deadly (No. 126), Dance of Death (No. 127), Kiss of a Killer (No. 128)

At the beginning of this miniseries, Jessica is digging through a dumpster, looking for a diamond earring, when she discovers a man’s body in the trash. There are bite marks in his neck, and his body has been drained of blood. The next Monday, a new guy starts at school: tall, dark, and handsome Jonathan Cain. Before long, SVH's entire student population, minus Elizabeth, has gone majorly goth, dyeing their hair black, painting their nails black, dressing in all black … you get the idea. 

Jessica decides that she wants to date Jonathan, but he ignores her. Jessica usually gets what she wants, though, and she's incredibly persistent: She gets a ride home from him, then later shows up at his house. He kisses her, and tells her she should have left him alone. There’s lots of making out and him telling her she should get out before it’s too late. (Sounds an awful lot like the plot of another vampire series, doesn’t it?) 

Jonathan decides he cares too much about Jessica to hurt her, so he invites Enid over instead. Jessica interrupts them, figures out what’s up, and gets mad. Jonathan is upset, but also relieved, because he didn’t really want to kill Enid.

Meanwhile, other people keep dying—including a girl named Katrina, who’s sucked dry during a party at Jonathan’s house. When Enid goes to visit her grave, she’s attacked and is in the hospital for the next week.

Jessica continues to see Jonathan, who Liz has figured out is a vampire based on some books she found at his house. She tells all the SVH kids, and they believe her. When Jonathan takes Jessica to his lair—a cave on the beach—Liz and Todd come to save the day, an angry mob on their heels. Jonathan turns into a bird and flies away. Vampires are real. The end.

8. STUDENTS SEARCH FOR TREASURE AND ARE ATTACKED BY CONVICTS IN THE DESERT.

The Books: The Treasure of Death Valley (No. 115), Nightmare in Death Valley (No. 116)

Liz, Jessica, Todd, Ken, Bruce, and Heather win a contest to go camping in Death Valley for four days with limited supplies. (Why anyone would enter a contest to do this is a mystery.) While hanging out near a mine shaft, one student turns on her portable TV and learns about some convicts who have escaped a prison. Meanwhile, Liz discovers a satchel full of gold nuggets, plus a map and a diary that discusses the “Treasure of the Scorpion,” in the mine. The group decides to hunt for the rest of the treasure, and are all soon carrying around their own bags of gold nuggets.

When the kids set up camp for the night, Jessica’s bag is stolen from her sleeping bag. She thinks Heather did it, but it was actually the three escaped convicts, who capture the kids, tie them up, and steal their gold. The kids manage to escape, but then they notice that one of the convicts is being swept away by a flash flood, so they rescue him. He turns out to be not so bad, but his buddies are pretty awful: They drag the kids into a cave, where they decide to kill them. The nice convict gets shot and dies; his killer leaves the cave, telling the other convict to kill the kids. Jessica convinces him not to do it, and he also leaves the cave—but not before firing six shots into the cave’s roof, which collapses, trapping the kids.

They take a path that goes deeper into the cave, and eventually they begin to walk through rapidly-rising water. It gets up to their necks, and they all think they’re going to die—then, miraculously, the water recedes. They realize that the cave walls are shale, so they kick and punch the walls away until they come out near the rendezvous point and head back to Sweet Valley. The kids are disappointed to learn the gold was pyrite, and the map and diary were fakes from a movie set.

9. THE TWINS BECOME NANNIES FOR A ROYAL FAMILY.

The Books: Once Upon a Time (No. 132), To Catch a Thief (No. 133), Happily Ever After (No. 134)

The Wakefield twins are very experienced babysitters, but who knew they were good enough to nanny for royalty? They travel to France for a month to be nannies for the de Saint-Maries. Liz (who was dumped by Todd for the summer) and Prince Laurent fall in love, but he has to get engaged to a horrible countess’s daughter. Jessica, meanwhile, is canoodling with Jacques, a guy she met on the train from the airport who claims to be a Duke’s son, but is actually a jewel thief. When Jessica wears an emerald he gave her—which was stolen from the countess whose daughter is promised to Prince Laurent—to a ball, the twins are thrown in a dungeon. They’re not there for long, though, before they’re rescued by their royal charges. The twins run into the woods and hide out there.

Laurent’s parents tell him they can convince the countess not to prosecute the twins if he agrees to marry her daughter, and he says he’ll do it. Meanwhile, Jacques finds the twins, and they convince him to confess to being the jewel thief. Laurent asks Liz to marry him; she’s so taken aback she can’t answer right away. Later, Jacques’s father comes to the castle and convinces Laurent to help him break his son out of the dungeon. Jacques and his father go free, Elizabeth turns Laurent down, and the twins head back to Sweet Valley, where Liz reunites with Todd. Happily ever after, indeed—except for Laurent, who now must presumably marry that awful countess’s daughter.

10. ELIZABETH IS ALMOST MURDERED BY HER BOSS.

The Books: Cover Girls (No. 129), Model Flirt (No. 130), Fashion Victim (No. 131)

The twins get an internship at a fashion magazine called Flair. Liz’s supervisor, Leona, tries to steal her idea for a column called “Free Style.” Lix tells the editor-in-chief of the magazine, but Leona accuses Liz of being the one to steal the idea, and Liz is fired. You’d think that Leona would feel pretty secure in her job, having eliminated the potential source of trouble and all, but instead, she goes to extremes and tries to kill Liz, first by hiring someone to run her off the road, then by aiming a gun at her in the Flair offices—but before she can pull the trigger, the police show up, and she’s arrested. Hope the column idea was worth it, Leona.

11. LIZ IS HELD HOSTAGE BY A GUY WITH A BOMB.

The Book: Deadly Summer (Super Thriller No. 4)

The twins are working at Sweet Valley News, where they learn that a man named Donald Redman has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Liz is assigned to find out about Donald; she discovers that he was a Sweet Valley High student who kidnapped a classmate he had a crush on. Later, he plants fake bombs at the local movie theater and the high school football stadium, shows up where Liz is babysitting, and then starts to believe that she’s the same girl he kidnapped back when he was in high school.

Donald is building a real bomb in the utility closet at the football stadium when Liz and Bruce show up to have a talk on the tennis courts; not long after, Liz’s boyfriend, Jeffrey, shows up, pretty angry that Liz and Bruce are hanging out. Liz wanders away from the guys and is grabbed by Donald.

Jessica and Lila figure out that Liz is in danger—first because they’re told by a Ouija board they’ve been using to trick Liz into thinking Bruce has a terminal illness is triggered by Jessica’s twin ESP, and second after Donald’s sister comes to the Wakefield house to tell them Liz is in danger. They call the police, then head to the football stadium.

There, the police tell Donald to give himself up, but he won’t—so Jeffrey tackles him, knocking the remote control out of his hand. Bruce runs away with the ticking bomb. Jeffrey tells Liz to smash the remote and take out the wires, which she does. The timer stops. Disaster averted, right? Wrong! A few seconds later, they hear an explosion. But it’s not Bruce who was blown up; it was Donald, who grabbed the bomb from him, ran away, and died when the bomb exploded.

12. AN OLD CLASSMATE TRIES TO STEAL ALICE WAKEFIELD’S FACE.

The Book: Murder in Paradise (Super Thriller No. 8)

Being prone to finding yourself in perilous situations must run in the Wakefield DNA. In this super thriller, which was published in 1995, Momma Wakefield Alice wins a trip to a Paradise Spa. She brings along the twins and their best friends, Enid and Lila (whose mother also tags along; Enid’s mom can’t get off work). The owner, Tatiana, is disfigured, and there are no mirrors at the spa at all because inner beauty is all that matters, according to the spa's staff.

Tatiana hypnotizes Enid, making her believe that her mother doesn’t love her. Later, one of the staff members confesses to Alice how much she wants to leave, but can’t; soon after, she’s found dead in the steam room. Then, Alice disappears. Liz goes looking for her, and gets pulled into a cave, where Tatiana is waiting. She spills her evil plan: To get plastic surgery to look like Alice, and then kill her.

Tatiana, we discover, is an old college classmate of Alice’s, who was so ugly that the students—including Alice—called her Tatty Mule. When she was 23, she got plastic surgery, but the surgeon was so terrible that Tatiana was disfigured. She started the spa and took in runaways, hypnotizing them and practicing her plastic surgery techniques on them. But before she can pull off her dastardly plan, Enid, Lila, and Jessica show up and save the day with the help of some of the staff, who come out of their trances just in time. Tatiana is arrested, and the staff is free. What a happy ending!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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