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 Poetic Facts about Emily Dickinson

American poet Emily Dickinson circa 1850
American poet Emily Dickinson circa 1850
Three Lions/Getty Images

Emily Dickinson lived nearly her entire life in Amherst, Massachusetts. She wrote hundreds of poems and letters exploring themes of death, faith, emotions, and truth. As she got older, she became reclusive and eccentric, and parts of her life are still mysteries. To celebrate her life, here are 11 things you might not know about Dickinson’s life and work.

1. She wasn't a fan of traditional punctuation.

Dickinson’s approach to poetry was unconventional. As her original manuscripts reveal, she interspersed her writing with many dashes of varying lengths and orientations (horizontal and vertical). Early editors cleaned up her unconventional markings, publishing her poems without her original notations. Scholars still debate how Dickinson’s unusual punctuation affected the rhythm and deeper meaning of her poems. If you’re interested in seeing images of her original manuscripts, dashes and all, head to the Emily Dickinson Archive.

2. She was a rebel.

Besides punctuation, Dickinson rebelled in matters of religion and social propriety. Although she attended church regularly until her 30s, she called herself a pagan and wrote about the merits of science over religion. Dickinson neither married nor had children, and she largely eschewed in-person social interactions, preferring to communicate with most of her friends via letters.

3. She never published anything under her own name.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson’s friend and mentor, praised her writing ability and innovation but discouraged her from publishing her poems, probably because he thought that the general public wouldn’t be able to recognize (or understand) her genius. Between 1850 and 1878, 10 of Dickinson’s poems and one letter were published in newspapers and journals, but she didn’t give permission for any of these works to be published, and they weren’t attributed to her by name. Although Dickinson may have tried to get some of her work published—in 1883, for example, she sent four poems to Thomas Niles, who edited Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women—she instead let her closest friends read her poems, and compiled them in dozens of homemade booklets. The first volume of Dickinson’s poetry was published in 1890, four years after her death.

4. She had vision problems in her thirties.

In 1863, Dickinson began having trouble with her eyes. Bright light hurt her, and her eyes ached when she tried to read and write. The next year, she visited Dr. Henry Willard Williams, a respected ophthalmologist in Boston. Although we don’t know what Williams's diagnosis was, historians have speculated that she had iritis, an inflammation of the eye. During her treatment, the poet had to eschew reading, write with just a pencil, and stay in dim light. By 1865, her eye symptoms went away.

5. She lived near family for her entire life.

Although Dickinson spent most of her adult life isolated from the world, she maintained close relationships with her brother and sister. Her brother, Austin, with his wife and three children, lived next door to her in a property called The Evergreens. Dickinson was close friends with Austin’s wife, Susan, regularly exchanging letters with her sister-in-law. And Dickinson's own sister, Lavinia, also a spinster, lived with her at the Dickinsons’ family home.

6. The identity of the man she loved is a mystery.

Dickinson never married, but her love life wasn’t completely uneventful. In the three "Master Letters," written between 1858 and 1862, Dickinson addresses "Master," a mystery man with whom she was passionately in love. Scholars have suggested that Master may have been Dickinson’s mentor, a newspaper editor, a reverend, an Amherst student, God, or even a fictional muse. Nearly two decades later, Dickinson started a relationship with Judge Otis Lord, a widowed friend of her father’s. Lord proposed to the poet in 1883, didn’t get an answer, and died in 1884.

7. She may have suffered from severe anxiety.

Historians aren’t sure why Dickinson largely withdrew from the world as a young adult. Theories for her reclusive nature include that she had extreme anxiety, epilepsy, or simply wanted to focus on her poetry. Dickinson’s mother had an episode of severe depression in 1855, and Dickinson wrote in an 1862 letter that she herself experienced "a terror" about which she couldn’t tell anyone. Mysterious indeed.

8. It’s a myth that she only wore white.

Due to her reclusive nature, legends and myth about Dickinson's personality and eccentricities spread. Before her death, Dickinson often wore a white dress and told her family that she wanted a white coffin and wished to be dressed in a white robe. But the widespread rumor that she only wore white was false. In a letter, she made a reference to owning a brown dress, and photos of her show her wearing dark clothing. For several decades, the Amherst Historical Society and Emily Dickinson Museum have displayed the poet’s well-known white dress (as well as a replica).

9. Her brother’s mistress edited and published her poetry.

In 1883, Dickinson’s brother started an affair with a writer named Mabel Loomis Todd. Todd and Emily Dickinson exchanged letters but never met in person. After Dickinson’s death, her sister asked Todd to help arrange Dickinson’s poems to be published. So Todd teamed up with Higginson to edit and publish Dickinson’s work, creating an awkward family dynamic between Dickinson’s brother, sister, and sister-in-law. After publishing the first volume in 1890, Todd and Higginson published a second collection of Dickinson’s poetry the next year. Todd even wrote articles and gave lectures about the poems, and she went on to edit Dickinson’s letters and a third volume of her poems.

10. She had a big green thumb.

Throughout her life, Dickinson was a major gardener. On her family’s property, she grew hundreds of flowers, planted vegetables, and cared for apple, cherry, and pear trees. She also oversaw the family’s greenhouse, which contained jasmine, gardenias, carnations, and ferns, and she often referred to plants in her poetry. Today, the Emily Dickinson Museum, located on the Dickinsons’ former property, is leading a restoration of Dickinson’s garden and greenhouse. Archaeologists have restored and replanted apple and pear trees on the property, and they’re hoping to find seeds from the 1800s to use for future planting.

11. Her niece added "called back" to her tombstone.

Poet Emily Dickinson's gravestone
Poet Emily Dickinson's gravestone
Mark Zimmerman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On May 15, 1886, Dickinson died at her home in Amherst of kidney disease or, as recent scholars have suggested, severe high blood pressure. Her first tombstone in Amherst’s West Cemetery only displayed her initials, E.E.D. (for Emily Elizabeth Dickinson). But her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, later gave her deceased aunt a new headstone, engraved with the poet’s name, birth and death dates, and the words "Called Back," a reference to an 1880 novel of the same name by Hugh Conway that Dickinson enjoyed reading. In the last letter that Dickinson wrote (to her cousins) before she died, she only wrote "Called Back."

This piece first appeared in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

Vans Is Launching a Harry Potter-Themed Collection of Sneakers and Apparel

© 2011 Warner Bros. Harry Potter Publishing Rights (c) J.K. Rowling
© 2011 Warner Bros. Harry Potter Publishing Rights (c) J.K. Rowling

If we’ve learned anything from the recent releases of Van Gogh-, David Bowie-, and NASA-themed collections of Vans shoes, it’s that you have to act fast—really fast—if you want to snag a limited edition sneaker. As CNN reports, customers are already begging Vans to take their money after the brand announced an upcoming Harry Potter collection, and the designs haven’t even been unveiled yet.

To the delight of self-proclaimed Gryffindors and Ravenclaws around the world, Vans just dropped this bombshell on its website: “Vans and Harry Potter collaborated to conjure up a magical collection of footwear, apparel, and accessories for witches, wizards, and muggles alike.”

As for the specific details and release date for the designs, Vans appears to be as good as Snape at keeping a secret. But if the background image on the website is any indication, the shoes will likely be modeled after the four Hogwarts houses.

We can also likely expect to see a variety of classic shoe styles. Past pop culture-inspired Vans collections have been based on Old Skool, slip-on, platform, and high-top models.

To receive updates on the Harry Potter collection, submit your email address here.

[h/t CNN]

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