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.

8. 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.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

11 Facts About John James Audubon

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

You might be familiar with the name John James Audubon from the bird conservation-focused Audubon Society—which he had nothing to do with founding—or the famous illustrations in his groundbreaking natural history collection, The Birds of America. But there are a few surprising bits of history about this quintessential American naturalist ... like the fact that, originally, he was neither American nor named Audubon.

1. John James Audubon immigrated to America to avoid serving in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

John James Audubon was born Jean Rabin in April 1785 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). He was an illegitimate son of a French naval officer/plantation owner, Jean Audubon, and a chambermaid named Jeanne Rabin, who died soon after he was born. In 1791, after Jean Audubon had returned to live in France, he arranged for his son and another illegitimate child to be sent there so he could formally adopt them. Jean Rabin was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.

In 1803, his father sent 18-year-old Jean-Jacques Audubon to Pennsylvania to avoid his conscription into Napoleon’s armies. There, he anglicized his name to John James Audubon.

2. America’s leading ornithologist had a beef with John James Audubon.

Eastern screech-owls from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

In 1810, before he became a full-time artist, Audubon and his business partner Ferdinand Rozier owned a shop in Louisville, Kentucky. One day, in strolled Alexander Wilson, an eminent ornithologist who was seeking subscriptions for his magnum opus in progress, American Ornithology. (At the time it was common for authors to seek subscriptions from members of the public that would pay for the completion of the work.) As Audubon looked at the engravings, Rozier said in French, “My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better.” Audubon ended up taking Wilson on a few hunting trips, but did not subscribe. Wilson would later write about Louisville, “Science or literature has not one friend in this place.”

While Wilson died in 1813—leaving his book unfinished—Audubon was just getting started traveling the country and illustrating birds. When he arrived in Philadelphia, the country’s intellectual capital, he got a chilly reception from Wilson’s colleagues. “[Naturalist] George Ord was so afraid that Audubon would totally bury the great, respected Alexander Wilson,” Roberta Olson, curator of drawings at the New-York Historical Society, told Mental Floss in 2017, that he “arranged for Philadelphia to basically close down [to Audubon], so he could not publish there.” The snub forced Audubon to seek his own subscribers in the UK when he decided to publish The Birds of America.

3. Another Bonaparte tried to help John James Audubon’s artistic career.

In 1824, Audubon met Napoleon’s nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a respected ornithologist. Bonaparte was, ironically, working to complete Wilson’s American Ornithology and was interested in Audubon’s art. Bonaparte even bought his drawing of a great crow-blackbird (now called the boat-tailed grackle) for use in his book. But according to legend, when Bonaparte took Audubon’s drawing to be engraved, the engraver sniffed, “I think your work extraordinary for one self-taught, but we in Philadelphia are used to seeing very correct drawing.” The engraving was made nonetheless, and Bonaparte proclaimed it “a faithful representation of both sexes … drawn by that zealous observer of nature and skilful artist Mr. John J. Audubon.”

4. At first, nobody thought The Birds of America would succeed.

Green herons from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon’s lack of success in Philadelphia, he traveled to Europe to attempt to find subscribers and printers for the hundreds of bird paintings that would become the Birds of America in book form. Audubon had the idea to print his artwork life-size on double elephant paper, measuring around 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches. Initially, the reaction to Audubon’s plan was muted. A bookseller named Mr. Bohn explained that such a giant book would never sell, since it would take up so much space on a table that it would either shame all the other books or render the table useless.

But that was before he saw the drawings. Several days later Audubon met the bookseller again and showed him his work. “Mr. Bohn was at first simply surprised, then became enthusiastic, and finally said they must be published the full size of life,” Audubon wrote. The resulting book, featuring 435 engraved and hand-colored plates, is now one of the most expensive in the world. Rare copies sell at auction for around $10 million.

5. John James Audubon sparked a controversy about vultures …

Before Audubon, vultures had been lauded for their sense of smell. The 1579 text Euphues asks, “Doth not the eagle see clearer, the vulture smell better, the mole hear lightlier?” In the 1770s, Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith called vultures “cruel, unclean, and indolent” but admitted that “their sense of smelling, however, is amazingly great.”

But in 1826, Audubon presented an “Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard … with the view of exploding the opinion generally entertained of its extraordinary power of Smelling” at the Wernerian Natural History Society in Edinburgh. Audubon described how he could sneak up very close behind a vulture and it wouldn’t fly away until he showed himself. He then ran experiments. In the first, he filled a deer skin with grass to approximate a recently deceased animal and observed a vulture attack the odorless prey. In the second, he hid a putrefying hog carcass in some grass, and no vulture found it, even though the stench prevented Audubon from getting within 30 yards of it.

Most of the Edinburgh crowd agreed with Audubon, but eccentric explorer and naturalist Charles Waterton demurred. Waterton had written of his own experiments in which turkey vultures would take away lizards and frogs “as soon as they began to stink.” But, according to zoologist Lucy Cooke, Waterton “was said to have a habit of hiding under the table at dinner parties to bite his guests’ legs like a dog, and delighted in elaborate, taxidermy-based practical jokes. A particularly inspired prank involved his fashioning an effigy of one of his (many) enemies out of a howler monkey’s buttocks.” So there’s that.

6. … and even Charles Darwin got involved.

Baltimore orioles from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Scientists took sides in what the London Quarterly Review called “the vulture controversy.” Nosarians believed vultures used their sense of smell, and anti-nosarians believed they used sight. In South Carolina, some of Audubon’s supporters commissioned a painting of a dead sheep and placed offal 10 feet away from it outdoors. Vultures attacked the painting. Even Charles Darwin conducted experiments on whether vultures could smell.

Later research [PDF] suggested that Audubon likely mistook black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which primarily use sight, for turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), which actually use smell to locate carrion. Cooke notes that Audubon described animals that seem to occasionally hunt live animals, which indicates black vultures, not turkey vultures. Most New World vultures use sight, and only a few use smell. Back in the 19th century, Waterton had been increasingly shunned for his anti-nosarian views. “Which is a shame” Cooke writes, “because he was right.”

7. John James Audubon discovered birds that don’t exist.

Audubon is credited with discovering around 25 species and 12 subspecies, but some of his other birds were later identified as being either immature birds or sexually dimorphic specimens. Beyond these, there are five “mystery birds” that appear nowhere but in Audubon’s watercolors: the carbonated swamp warbler, Cuvier’s kinglet, Townsend’s finch (or Townsend’s bunting), small-headed flycatcher, and blue mountain warbler. The Audubon Society also includes the Bartram's vireo in the list. These unidentifiable birds were probably hybrids or known birds with aberrant colorations.

8. John James Audubon might have been the first bird bander.

Great egret from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

Soon after arriving in the U.S., Audubon attached tied some silver thread around the legs of Eastern phoebes (he called them pewee flycatchers). The birds left the area in October. When they returned the following spring, Audubon found two still sporting silver threads. His experiment is often called the first bird banding experiment in the western hemisphere.

A recent article in Archives of Natural History casts doubt on the story, though. Audubon claimed 40 percent of his tagged eastern phoebes returned home, but a larger scale study found only around 1.5 percent of banded birds returned. Audubon may have been in France at the time of the phoebes’ return, too.

9. John James Audubon illustrated a long-lost New Jersey bank note.

Generations of Audubon scholars have hunted for a mysterious bank note that Audubon allegedly illustrated in 1824. In his journals, Audubon wrote, “I drew … a small grouse to be put on a bank-note belonging to the state of New Jersey.” It’s believed that this was his first engraved bird illustration, but no one was able to find any evidence of its existence—until 2010, when historians Robert M. Peck and Eric P. Newman found the sample sheets the engraver had produced with stock images for the currency. Among the George Washingtons and bald eagles was a little heath hen. Peck told NPR, "A little scurrying grouse rushing into a bed of grass is not the kind of confident image that a bank president wants to convey,” so a bald eagle probably replaced it on the currency.

Similarly, heath hens went extinct in 1932, but some researchers have proposed bringing them back.

10. John James Audubon had nothing to do with the Audubon Society.

Jays from John James Audubon's Birds of America
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and the Montgomery County Audubon Collection, Audubon.org // Public Domain

After Audubon published The Birds of America and established himself as America’s premier naturalist, he bought land and a mansion in rural upper Manhattan in New York City. Audubon died there in 1851, but his wife, Lucy, continued to live in the estate later known as Audubon Park. In 1857, businessman George Blake Grinnell and his family moved to Audubon Park, and Lucy became a teacher for his son, 7-year-old George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell later became a respected naturalist, editor-in-chief of outdoors magazine Forest and Stream, and an advocate for conservation.

In 1886, he founded the Audubon Society and the next year The Audubon Magazine, inspired by his childhood classes with Lucy, whom he remembered as a “beautiful, white-haired old lady with extraordinary poise and dignity; most kindly and patient and affectionate, but a strict disciplinarian of whom all the children stood in awe.” He also cofounded the conservation-minded Boone and Crockett Club with Theodore Roosevelt. But by 1889, the pressures of running multiple journals and societies proved too much, and the Audubon Society folded.

11. Two women, inspired by fashionable hats, revived the Audubon Society.

In 1896, Boston socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin Minna B. Hall were horrified after reading an account of the plume-hunting industry—a trade that killed millions of wild birds to supply feathers for millinery. They resolved to stop their fellow fashionistas from wearing wild feathers. The two founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society and sent a letter to Forest and Stream to ask people to take a pledge “not to purchase or encourage the use of feathers of wild birds for ornamentation.” More regional Audubon Societies sprang up around the country, and in 1940 they combined to form the National Audubon Society. Today the organization focuses on science-based conservation and education to protect birds, continuing John James Audubon’s legacy into the 21st century.

The Best Ways to Get Kids to Love Books, According to Children's Laureates

iStock/fotosipsak
iStock/fotosipsak

The benefits of reading are without dispute. Kids who are proficient readers tend to do better in school, have a larger vocabulary, and be better prepared for later academic challenges than kids who don’t pick up books. Parents know this, but it’s not always easy to convince a child that spending time with their nose in a classic is worthwhile.

The Guardian recently solicited advice on the topic from 10 Children’s Laureates—authors in the UK who are celebrated for their achievements in children’s literature. The recurring tip? Set an example for kids. Madame Doubtfire author Anne Fine, the Children’s Laureate for 2001 to 2003, said that kids who see their parents hovering over their smart phone or tablet screens are more likely to want to do the same thing. But if they see parents holding a book, they’ll want to emulate that instead.

The Story of Tracy Beaker author and laureate Jacqueline Wilson (2005 to 2007) added that being a strong influence also extends to sharing books with kids. Toddlers, she said, particularly enjoy spending time with a parent and discussing both a book and its illustrations. If they’re reading on their own, it’s still worthwhile to pick up a more advanced book and help them through it.

Willy and Hugh author Anthony Browne (the laureate from 2009 to 2011) echoed the shared-reading advice, suggesting that pictures can provoke a lot of questions about relationships between characters, locations, and body language. This can not only reinforce a love of reading, but an ability to read between the lines.

Wilson also said that some reverse psychology might be in order. If you tell a child to stop reading, they may want to read more than ever in an act of literary defiance. That kind of strategy might work for some kids, but ultimately, the best way to instill a love of reading is to demonstrate your own love for books.

[h/t The Guardian]

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