Sweet Valley High v. Nancy Drew

The Training Bras of Literature,” Amy Benfer’s article from a recent issue of the Believer, remembers the Sweet Valley High books and contrasts them with the Nancy Drew series. Benfer’s been hiding the SVH books behind magazines and reading them on the subway. (C’mon now, ladies, don’t even try to pretend you don’t remember the series.)

The Sweet Valley High novels I love are perfect, undiluted artifacts of what we thought perfect, undiluted teenage girlhood should look like in the eighties. They have the original covers, in the horrible Smartie-colored pastel shades we wore then—seashell pink, goldenrod, mint green, and of course, peach, teal, and dusty rose. Across the top is the logo, spelled out in bright red block letters like the ones on the cheerleading sweaters we all wished we owned. (Of course, the Sweet Valley High football team has the most desirable colors: red and white.)

But best of all, these novels have the cover illustrations by one James Mathewuse. (No, I don’t get the spelling either.) As a preteen girl, those covers seemed to be the most satisfying form of pornography I had. I remember finding the real stuff, in the usual basements, and on the top shelves of cupboards I opened while babysitting (my own parents had nothing racier than The Joy of Sex, that old hippie tome). But images of actual sex, at that time, seemed simply mechanical; real sexiness, to me, had to do with some vague notion of being validated as supremely beautiful. I would stare for hours at the covers of Sweet Valley High novels, as if they were catalogs and I could literally shop for a perfect self.

The article is worth skimming, although the focus toward the end on the appeal and significance of the “sweet, wholesome” look gets tedious–it’s reminiscent of pat essays written for my undergraduate women’s studies classes, but lacks the lit crit citations. (Via Lizzie, who knows the series intimately.)

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