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.

George R.R. Martin Says Game of Thrones Could've Gone on Much Longer

Rich Polk, Getty Images for IMDb
Rich Polk, Getty Images for IMDb

by Natalie Zamora

Despite the excitement every Game of Thrones fan had last night when the HBO series won the biggest Emmy award of the night for Outstanding Drama Series, there are still two major things we just can't ignore. The first is that the final season is still ​months away, and the second is the fact that it's all about to end.

George R.R. Martin, the genius behind the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, is clearly feeling our pain. While on the Emmys' Red Carpet last night, the famed author revealed he doesn't actually know why the TV series is ending.

"I dunno. Ask David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] when they come through," Martin replied when Variety asked him why the show was ending. "We could have gone to 11, 12, 13 seasons, but I guess they wanted a life."

"If you've read my novels, you know there was enough material for more seasons," the author elaborated. "They made certain cuts, but that's fine." It's not really fine for the diehard fans who aren't going to know what to do with themselves when it's over!

Thankfully, Martin did give us hope as to ​what's to come after Thrones. "We have five other shows, five prequels, in development, that are based on other periods in the history of Westeros, some of them just 100 years before Game of Thrones, some of them 5000 years before Game of Thrones," he shared.

Westeros Forever. No? Fine.

10 Fascinating Facts About Patrick Melrose

Showtime
Showtime

Benedict Cumberbatch has never made a secret that there are just two roles he has ever wanted to play: Hamlet and Patrick Melrose. In 2015, he took on Shakespeare’s famous protagonist at the Barbican in London. In May of this year, he played the latter role—a semi-autobiographical approximation of novelist Edward St. Aubyn—with a little help from Reddit.

The five-part Showtime miniseries, which was directed by Edward Berger and adapted by David Nicholls with St. Aubyn, is not an easy watch. But its unique mix of dark pathos and black humor—not to mention its stellar acting, sharp writing, and eye-popping cinematography—make it one of the year’s most compelling dramas. As the miniseries prepares to compete for five Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series for Cumberbatch, we took a look behind the scenes to find out what made Patrick Melrose tick.

1. EACH EPISODE COVERS AN ENTIRE BOOK.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose book series is comprised of five titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last, which is the same number of episodes as in the miniseries. It’s no coincidence. Each episode of the decades-spanning series covers one book, so that no part of the story was left untold.

“The books were fascinating because they were never envisioned as a kind of saga,” writer David Nicholls told Variety. “They were written one by one, and after each book, [St. Aubyn] thought that was the end of the story.” When it came time to adapt the series, it was important to Nicholls to maintain that ongoing structure as he believed that each story stood as “a snapshot from the character’s life."

2. THE BOOKS WERE CONSIDERED “UNADAPTABLE” BY MANY PEOPLE.

Like so many other popular novels before them, a lot of people couldn’t envision how one might adapt the Patrick Melrose books into a movie or television series. Among those people? Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Patrick’s mother Eleanor in the series. Leigh told Variety that while she loved the books, she “didn’t think it was possible to adapt it, ever.” So when she got her hands on Nicholls’s script, she was very pleasantly surprised. “The book came to life in such a beautiful way; I have no idea how he did it.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, too, was worried about how the books would translate to the screen. “I was very nervous about it, despite it being a bucket-list role because I knew the books had quite rightfully a variety of very passionate of devotees and they are difficult to adapt,” he told Deadline. “There’s such rich source material and extraordinary set pieces in the books as they are.”

Edward Berger, who directed the series, read the first book, Never Mind, in 1993—and even he admitted that he couldn’t imagine how one would adapt it for the screen because “not much happens. In terms of a traditional plot, there’s very little in it. It’s about one man, his psychological dismay, and him falling apart … So it’s very hard to visualize."

3. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH HAS REDDIT TO (PARTLY) THANK FOR THE ROLE.

During a 2013 Reddit AMA, a fan asked Cumberbatch, “If you could choose to be any other literary character in an upcoming role who would it be?” His answer was swift and to the point: Patrick Melrose. What the actor didn’t realize was that the project was already in the works, and the producers had been eyeing him for the part. When they learned that it was a dream project for Cumberbatch as well, the wheels started moving rather quickly. "Never underestimate the power of an online Q&A," Cumberbatch told the Los Angeles Times.

4. ITS STRUCTURE WAS INFLUENCED BY THE GODFATHER.

When asked about his process for adapting so much text into a set amount of screen time, Nicholls told Variety that learning the books “back to front” was the first step. The second step was to “take a step back to see what stayed in [my] head as important and what [I] loved.” He looked to what might seem like an unlikely source for inspiration: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

“I was very influenced by the way Francis Ford Coppola broke down The Godfather,” Nicholls told Variety, “so I broke each of these books down similarly and looked through them for the moments that I felt were most important and would work the best dramatically.”

5. LARA PULVER, A.K.A. SHERLOCK’S IRENE ADLER, ALMOST PLAYED CUMBERBATCH’S WIFE.

Fans of Sherlock know that Cumberbatch’s titular consulting detective is rarely at a loss for words, except for when he’s face-to-fact with dominatrix Irene Adler, a.k.a. “The Woman.” So it didn’t seem like the best idea to pair the two up as husband and wife for Patrick Melrose.

“The director of Ben’s Patrick Melrose project did call to ask about me playing his wife, but we both decided it wouldn’t work,” Pulver told The Telegraph. “When you’ve already been seen in a relationship together on such a large scale ...”

6. CUMBERBATCH HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH THE UPPER-CLASS MANNERISMS.

Holliday Grainger, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Prasanna Puwanarajah in 'Patrick Melrose'
Showtime

Though it might seem as if Cumberbatch is always playing some sort of aristocrat, he admitted that adapting both the vocal and physical mannerisms of the very specific English upper class to which the Melrose family belongs was one of his biggest challenges. “I know everyone goes on about the posh thing with me—but despite looking it, I am not that class,” Cumberbatch told the Radio Times. “That class is landed gentry. I had to posh up for this.”

“I went to a very posh public school, second to Eton, yet I had only one friend from the landed gentry,” he told Vanity Fair. "I’ve been trying to knock the corners off my accent ever since I left Harrow.” For help, he often tapped St. Aubyn.

7. NOW WAS THE PERFECT—AND PERHAPS THE ONLY—TIME FOR CUMBERBATCH TO TAKE ON THE ROLE.

While audiences see Patrick as a young boy played by Sebastian Maltz, Cumberbatch portrays the character from ages 25 to 45, which provided yet another challenge. Yet the actor thinks that, as far as his age goes, now is about the only time he could have pulled that off. “These books lay out a very particular set of circumstances and the personal dilemma of them,” he told Deadline. “So, of course, the older you get the wiser you get for whatever reason, but I think for these books, I had to be somewhere in the balance of his age.”

8. THE PRODUCERS WERE DETERMINED TO PORTRAY ADDICTION AS ACCURATELY AS POSSIBLE.

In addition to starring in the series, Cumberbatch also served as an executive producer via his production company, SunnyMarch. As so much of the series centers on Melrose’s addiction to drugs, it was important to the actor and his fellow producers that they get that part right. Which took some research. “I’ve always been about moderation,” Cumberbatch told Rolling Stone. “I’m not a binger and nothing is habitual with me. So the idea of what an addict goes through is something I really had to come to understand.”

In order to help accurately portray the experience and psychology of addiction, Cumberbatch told Deadline that they “were very much advised by two people who were addicts as well as [St. Aubyn] having been very honest about his own experiences. I didn’t want to alienate that world at all. I wanted them to feel, however uncomfortable the watch might be, that we were being accurate. But also, I think that this is a story of salvation, so it’s universal. You don’t have to have experienced the trauma that he has on any level to go on the journey.”

9. CUMBERBATCH’S EMMY NOMINATION PUTS HIM IN RARE COMPANY.

 Actor Benedict Cumberbatch attends The Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences Performer Nominees' 64th Primetime Emmy Awards Reception at Spectra by Wolfgang Puck at the Pacific Design Center on September 21, 2012
Imeh Akpanudosen, Getty Images

Cumberbatch is no stranger to the Emmy Awards. In addition to winning the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for Sherlock in 2014, he has been nominated as a lead actor an additional five times—putting his grand total as of 2018 at six, an almost-record number that only Laurence Olivier has ever matched. (Hal Holbrook has them both beat with seven nominations.)

“It’s amazing,” Cumberbatch told the Los Angeles Times in reaction to the honor. “I don’t know what to say about that really. That’s something to put on your gravestone. I don’t know—yeah, I’m speechless. That’s my very English reaction to that. Maybe I should try other categories? Art direction?”

10. DON’T EXPECT CUMBERBATCH TO RETIRE ANYTIME SOON.

In any profession, the problem with stating your ultimate goal is what to do after you’ve achieved it. But early retirement is not a likely next move for Cumberbatch, who’ll voice the Grinch later this year. “Melrose and Hamlet were the only two roles I was ever desperate to play,” he told the Radio Times. “And now I’ve done both! I can retire! Much to the relief of the world! Except, I will never retire.”

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