CLOSE

14 Things You Might Not Know About Sweet Valley High

Long before Harry Potter turned young adult literature into a publishing phenomenon, there was Sweet Valley High. A 1983 to 2003 episodic series featuring teenaged twins Elizabeth (the good one) and Jessica (the naughty one) Wakefield, the thinly-bound soap opera narratives created and supervised by author Francine Pascal sold over 150 million copies worldwide. Take a look at these 14 facts about the series that rewrote the book on high school angst.

1. PASCAL HAD NO INTEREST IN WRITING THEM ...

A former journalist, Pascal had shopped a teen-oriented television soap opera in the 1970s but had no takers. In the early 1980s, she decided the serialized format might lend itself to an ongoing line of books. Pascal’s agent, Amy Berkower (who also shepherded the Choose Your Own Adventure franchise) sold the idea to Bantam. Pascal wrote a reference “bible” for ghostwriters and acted as the title’s de facto editor. Though Pascal’s name appears on every entry in the series with a “Created By” credit, her role was supervisory in nature. She told The Guardian she had no interest in writing them in part because her previous books were for a “sophisticated, educated audience."

2. ... SO SHE HAD AN OXFORD GRADUATE DO IT.

Ghostwriters would get a book outline from her with plot points to follow; they’d be able to add their own flourishes and character moments, then turn the manuscript around for Pascal’s approval. One regular writer, Oxford graduate Amy Boesky, described the outlines as like “long, free-verse poems,” with eight or nine pages of single-spaced suggestions; Pascal said the process was like “paint by numbers” for books.

2. READERS THOUGHT PASCAL WAS A TEENAGER.

The tribulations of the Sweet Valley gang—stolen boyfriends, social cliques, irritating parents—so resonated with her readership that some assumed Pascal was roughly their age. One autograph seeker at a public signing approached her and exclaimed she thought Pascal would be 16; in fact, Pascal’s daughters were older than that. The author was in her late 40s when the series debuted and 66 when it ended in 2003.

4. PASCAL ALSO HAD A 100-BOOK CONTRACT.

While it’s not unusual for publishers to lock up celebrated, successful authors to contracts, Pascal may have had one of the most substantial commitments in the book business: Bantam signed her to a 100-book deal. (The series grew to roughly 152 entries in total, not including spin-off titles like Sweet Valley Twins that de-aged the girls to grade school and a thriller line where they solved murders.)

5. ONLY THREE CURSES WERE ALLOWED.

According to ghostwriter Ryan Nerz, the SVH protocol allowed for only three semi-profane words to appear in the titles: damn, hell, and bitch. Nerz peppered his manuscripts with them, then let editors pare down the expletives to an acceptable number.

6. IT WAS THE FIRST TEEN TITLE TO MAKE THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST.

In just a few short years, SVH took up permanent residence on nightstands in teen bedrooms across the country. Perfect Summer, released in 1985, became the first paperback young-adult fiction title to crack the venerable New York Times Bestseller List. The following year, 18 of the top 20 young adult spots in Waldenbooks and B. Dalton were Sweet Valley titles.  

7. BUT THE SERIES HAD ITS DETRACTORS.

While Sweet Valley High intoxicated young readers who may never have otherwise picked up a book outside of assigned reading, critics believed it was the literary equivalent of “junk food” and nothing more than a sanitized version of the Harlequin romances; libraries didn’t like how the flimsy spines looked on shelves. Pascal dismissed the talk, saying it didn’t matter so long as it got kids to read. “I don’t know that they’re all going to go on to War and Peace, but we’ve created readers out of nonreaders,” she told People in 1988.

7. THE COVER ARTIST PAINTED THE PRESIDENT.

Book cover artist James Mathewuse was highly sought after by the New York publishing houses: In addition to doing work for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys lines, he painted roughly 250 Sweet Valley covers. Two decades earlier, he was asked by the Democratic National Committee of Florida to paint President John F. Kennedy. Mathewuse also studied under Norman Rockwell protege Peter Caras and employed Rockwell's practice of having models photographed for reference material. For teen-lit, he skipped symbolism and went for light colors. "A symbolic cover is probably over the teenagers' heads," he told the New Yorker in 2010. "A romance title works best with pastel, lavender, and pink."

9. THE RE-RELEASE PUT THE GIRLS ON A DIET.

When Random House re-issued the series in 2008, they circulated a letter to journalists indicating certain dated references would be updated for contemporary readers. The twins’ red Fiat, for example, became a Jeep Wrangler. Curiously, they also shrunk the dress sizes of the girls from the original “perfect size 6” to a “perfect size 4.” The move prompted some media outlets to voice concern that the tweaks could provoke body-image issues in readers.

10. THE BOARD GAME WAS PRETTY VAPID.

Few pop culture touchstones escaped the board game treatment in the 1970s and '80s. In Sweet Valley High: The Game, players could “trade boyfriends” and acquire material goods in order to win. You might also land on a space that lets you give your maid the day off. Who can’t relate?

11. A MAJOR CHARACTER DIED FROM SNORTING COCAINE.

Though Pascal was initially reluctant to explore more taboo topics like teen pregnancy and drug use, she eventually warmed to the idea: Book #40 in the series, On the Edge, was a cautionary tale featuring the twins' pal, Regina Morrow, who attends a party, tries cocaine for the first time, and drops dead on the spot. (Unbeknownst to her, she had a heart defect.) The Internet is rife with people who claim they have never done drugs as a direct result of Regina’s passing.

12. THE ORIGINAL SERIES ENDED WITH AN EARTHQUAKE.

Natural disasters are not typical teen-lit fodder, but Pascal wanted to go out with a bang: the final books in the main Sweet Valley franchise revolved around an earthquake that demolished the township. Tragically, classmate Olivia Davidson perished when a refrigerator fell on her.

13. THE TWINS CAME BACK AS ADULTS.

Though Pascal once stated she wasn’t interested in the twins beyond the age of 17—she wanted to “keep them at the stage where everything is intense and pure”—the author explored their entry into adulthood with 2011’s Sweet Valley Confidential. It was the first installment she wrote entirely by herself, motivated in part after getting letters asking what happened to the Wakefield sisters after the conclusion of the series. (Spoiler: When the book opens, the two aren’t on speaking terms.) While the novel was not critically embraced, it sold well enough for Pascal to follow it up with an e-book serial, The Sweet Life.

14. A MOVIE AND/OR TV REBOOT IS COMING.

Nothing escapes the cultural recycling bin, and Sweet Valley High is no exception. Brittany Daniel, who played Jessica on the 1994-97 syndicated television series, has said there’s talk of a reboot; Pascal told an interviewer in 2012 that a feature is possible, and that she’d like Taylor Swift to play both girls. It looked like a film would move forward when Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody signed on—she's been attached since at least 2011—but she told Vulture earlier this year that, though it's the project she's asked about most often, she "can't get the f***ing thing made!"

Be sure to check out 12 of the Sweet Valley High Books’ Most Ridiculous Plotlines.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
The Ohio State University Archives
arrow
Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
chartaediania, eBay
arrow
#TBT
The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
Chartaediania, eBay

Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios