They weren’t even Facebook friends!

Chapters 3-6:

Elizabeth is still emo in New York. This Will Connolly playwright seems like a total asshole. Which is kind of hot. Not every falls at Liz’s feet right away anymore. Shocker! He’s a Todd doppleganger! Well, it seems that Todd has more than one look-a-like. Some guy an an opposing volleyball team, I think. It makes me feel comforted that Francine is still recycling plotlines. This character and Elizabeth’s time in New York, I will admit, it not horrible.

But, let’s allow the horridness of Jim Regis’ party. Todd is so co-dependent on Liz that he can’t go to a party alone? And mind you, Todd is the star of the basketball team. Which, I am to assume is Division I, because they just played UCLA. So he has NO OTHER FRIENDS TO GO WITH?

I don’t mean to generalize all college athletes, but no fucking way would Todd be afraid to go to a party himself. In fact, he wouldn’t even have time for this party, or even have time for his high school friends. UNLESS the rest of the team dislikes him, which is not out of the realm of possibility.

And Jessica and Todd never talking? First off (1) it’s her twin sister’s boyfriend for about 7 years (or 15 years in real world time) (2)She supposedly had a secret affair with him (3)she had a non-secret tryst with him while Elizabeth was on trial for Sam’s death.

So, it seems really off that after one night of having fun at a party, they would throw themselves at each other and “make love” and then meet at seedy diners to continue the affair. What’s the appeal? That he can still have Elizabeth’s physical beauty without her self-righteousness? Well, maybe it’s not so unbelievable.

Jessica’s second marriage: pretty on par for Jessica, to marry someone who gives her attention to feed her narcissism. Didn’t Lila marry some royalty? Shouldn’t she be calling her best friend for advice?

Is it just me, or do these current, technological references seem thrown-in after the fact? Like mentioning that Todd and Jessica “weren’t even Facebook friends” and Jessica would rather be “updating Twitter” than spend time with her rich husband.

You guys, I know that the basis of my existence is tearing these books apart. However, I don’t mean to be this down on it. It’s just a lot of waiting for a lot of letdown.

BUT, for some uplifting news, twitter user @amaluu pointed me to this: THE SWEET VALLEY MUSICAL DOES EXIST! It is so exciting to hear them mentioning the characters names!

Looks that Kill

We never thought we’d see it happen! A new Sweet Valley book. And the first one AUTHORED by Francine herself.  At least that we know of.

Allow me to use a metaphor for how I am feeling about the release of this book. I mean without even getting into the content. Because that’s a whole other…well, just wait on that. I have recently come to find out that Motley Crue and Poison are on tour and are stopping in San Francisco. (Oh yea, and the New York Dolls, but they have no significance to me.)

For those of you that know me, I freaking love the Crue and Poison. They are a huge part of my childhood, my introduction to loving music. That and they were AWESOME. To me, as a teen, they epitomized the ultimate cool, the ultimate rock ‘n roll, the ultimate MEN. The fact that they wore makeup and glam made them even MORE AWESOME AND HAWT. I longed to be one of the women who partied backstage with them. Although, I am sure my 14 year old self didn’t have a TRUE idea of what that entailed. [Side note, a coworker recently revealed to me that at age 15 she went backstage and fooled around with Vince Neil. I cannot control my immense envy. ] I was obsessed with watching their videos on Headbangers’ Ball [ah memories] and waited for the “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” video to catch a glimpse of Bret Michaels getting out of the bed in his briefs. Am I right ladies? You did that too.

Alas, I never got to see them live.  I should probably thank my parents to never allowing my tween self to one of those concerts. So wouldn’t the choice of seeing them live be a total no-brainer?

I’m not gonna go. Why? Because yes, even though the bands are the same, have all the same members, will likely sing some amazing classics, they are NOT Motley Crue and Poison. At least how they were, and it’s not even about their age. The times are different, I am different, and they don’t represent that rock n roll outlaw culture that they defined. It wasn’t just them that I loved, it was for me at the time what they represented and the influence they had over the music and culture of the time. I will never get that back and it can never be created. So, it’s not their fault, it’s just a change in my relationship to them. [However, if Enuff Z’Nuff reunited and joined the tour, I’d probably be there in a second.]

So thus is my feeling with Sweet Valley Confidential. Plus, we have such a relationship with these characters that nothing that happens to them will fit our expectations. So, in a way, I feel bad for Francine. She’s running an uphill battle with this.

First things first: It seems that Francine is completely ignoring the other series that are not Sweet Valley high. Hence, all the stuff that happened in Sweet Valley University obviously has not happened in the Confidential universe. No marriage to the Mike guy, no Tom whats his face. And certainly no time when Elizabeth goes to London to become a scullery maid (which, btw, WTF? I’ve never really talked about that before.) Does Francine not “endorse” those series? Or was it easier for her to just keep it in one universe? Thank god this isn’t sci fi, or it would be torn apart by angry fans. Well, more so than now.

[Apparently I am wrong- I had read an earlier draft where these things were not mentioned.]

For now, I’m focusing on the first two chapters, because let’s be honest folks, we need to analyze this to death.

-So Liz ran away to New York. And she’s not suddenly the toast of the town, offered a job at the New York Times, etc. That’s refreshing. She’s working at a “meager” theater periodical, which sounds sort of like Playbill. Not too shabby, that actually sounds like a dream gig for me.

-Jessica and Todd. Sigh. So we’re back to that. I don’t buy it for a second that these two should be together. Although really Liz, are you surprised? All that cheating didn’t give you a hint?

-Remembering back to the “Double Love” era. is this a verbatim of what happened? I don’t care to take the time to look. And Jessica’s voiceover: sorry Francine, after 100+ books of Jessica’s sociopathy, there is no way you can convince me that she is a tortured soul.  That’s she’s really tortured and is the way she is because she is insecure. Too little, too late.

And then we get to Lila’s party. Sigh.

Francine, I feel, hates her characters. The ones that were the supposed “good” and “well-meaning” are sad souls. Cara is miserable and has a failed marriage (did the move to London never happen?) Enid, now married to A.J. Morgan (what?) is an arrogant anti-choice doctor. I guess that’s your punishment for being brunette and a non-cheerleader. You hold that anger inside you until you are an adult and then become a horrible person. Beware everyone.

Robin Wilson. Robin, Robin, Robin. Never able to escape her food issues. Well, don’t worry folks, she only gained back “a little of the weight” she lost. And, apparently, will always be a fatty because she became a caterer so she can always be around food. Wasn’t Robin a science wiz? And a champion diver? None of that mattered?

Lila, our dear Lila. What happened to her? All that character building and exploration of her true self…leads her to being a manipulative trophy wife. With a boob job.

Lastly, why are they all still hanging out together? These folks were not friends in high school. For the sake of the story, we need to see all these characters interacting, but I just don’t buy that they would all move back to Sweet Valley after colleges and various careers.

And Jessica and Todd. Wow. They are miserable people. And pretty much hate each other. And Todd still loves Elizabeth, but is with Jessica because he would just end up hurting Elizabeth anyway?

I realize I’m being bleak, but this book is turning out to be bleak. I guess my hopes were that it would celebrate the characters we have come to know, but it seems that I’d rather not know if this is how they turned out.

And that’s only the first two chapters!  To end on a positive note, let’s watch  a golden oldie from Poison, back when narrative stories were all the rage with videos. And this story is very Sweet Valley-like.

More thoughts later…


I’m excited for these two updates:

I was lucky enough to be interviewed for the Fully Engaged Feminism Podcast. Check out the other episodes, it’s really fantastic.

I’m still living the dream by revisiting the late 80s/early 90s. I hope you all will follow me over at my new blog Down on Jump Street where I will be watching and recapping 21 Jump Street, a shining gem in the history of television. I actually never watched it when it was on (and I have no idea why- I used to read all about the stars in Dynamite magazine.). Here’s the thing about it: it’s actually a pretty entertaining show. Sure, it’s also horrifically cheesy at times so there is never a shortage of things to make fun of, but there is something endearing about it.  You can also find all the episodes for free online, so I hope you will watch along with me. And crush on Peter DeLuise along with me. And envy Holly Robinson’s wardrobe with me.

Excuse me while I get self-referential for a bit.

Thanks Serena for leaving this comment, and it really made me think and want to give a direct response. I really appreciate you posting this- and I don’t know what sort of trouble you could get in (maybe I’d spike your punch with vodka?) and I’ve actually only deleted one comment in this blog’s lifespan…because it contained really hateful and racist language for the sake of being hurtful. And along with all the porn spam. But anyway, essentially:

Because Francine’s publishers are contacting all the Sweet Valley recap blogs and treating them like straightforward “fanpages” (instead of mockery done by critical readers who may remember the series with some fondness as a part of their childhood but aren’t blind to it’s faults) and giving bloggers free swag to give away in contests/asking them to promote her upcoming book…

You guys are gonna lose your edge! Please don’t sell out and cut back on the snark, especially when it comes to the new book (which the majority of first-chapter-readers seem to think is crap…except for people who were invited to meet the publishers — ooh, ahh! – to get a sneak peek and not-so-surprisingly only have positive things to say.)

I understand bloggers may be excited to be in touch with an author/publisher, and get free merch, yada yada. But the danger is that you’ll start thinking, “oh, they’ve been so nice to me…I don’t want to not-be-nice back! I’ll cut them some slack and give their product a more favorable review.”

That is a totally valid and astute observation. I was contacted by St. Martin’s press and asked to link to the Sweet Valley Confidential Website, which I did (and just did again). I wrote back when they asked me and said “Have you actually read my blog? Are you sure you want me to be associated with your product?” She wrote back and essentially said what Serena mentioned- they are considering these blogs as fanpages. To be fair to the publisher, it is their job to promote this book and get publicity- maybe even going with the idea that “any press is good press.” I can see why they are going with the plan to connect with people’s childhood memories instead of social commentary… ultimately, they need to sell books, right?  I’ve also spoken to many people about SVH (I’m often introduced to friends of friends as “someone who blogs about Sweet Valley High”) and most people remember it, but not everyone wants to talk smack about it. Legit. They would rather have it as a piece of childhood nostalgia and not deconstruct it for its social implications. Totally legit, although it does frustrate me. But I’m someone who alienates 85% of the population because I’m always looking at pop culture through a sociological lens instead of “just stop taking everything so seriously….and just enjoy it”. The way I do enjoy things IS looking at it through a critical lens and understanding the social implications. Don’t get me started on Avatar. However, it makes sense for the publisher to go this route because their goal is to sell the book. Which, last I checked, is the goal of a publishing company. So I’m at peace with that.

Did I agree to link to the first Chapter? Sure, because it was of great interest to me and to my readers. Am I grateful that this blog is linked on the website? Sure, but it’s not like it has brought me a plethora of new readership. In fact, to demonstrate my own free will to be critical: wtf is with that “website”? Can it even be called that? St. Martin’s press, please splurge for a web designer. Or a class in Dream Weaver.

Was the first chapter “good”? HELLS NO. It was a living cliche of bad romance novels and trite writing. Did I enjoy it? Yes. In much of the same way I enjoy Dear Sister (not that they are even in the SAME LEAGUE of badness (goodness)). And this opinion had nothing to do with any freebies (I’ve also yet to see any freebies). A “Team Elizabeth” or “Team Jessica” t-shirt which probably doesn’t fit my body type anyhow doesn’t impress me much anyway. I actually think that is trite, overdone marketing idea. I promise you all that I’m still thinking for myself….OR AM I? I mean, I once fell for the allure of a shitty co-op and a hot cult leader from Good Friends after the tragic occurrence of my family making fun of my cooking skills. So, you never know.

And let this be considered an OPEN INVITATION TO FRANCINE PASCAL if she ever was willing to do some sort of interview or something. I’d of course be nice to her as a person (maybe), but feel no hesitation in offering a “critical response” to her life’s work. Francine, BRING IT ON!

Serena, you rock, thanks for bringing this up, and making me think more about my motivations. I am so going to nominate you for Pi Beta Alpha.

Thanks to Sweet Valley Confidential’s tumblr, I was reminded of the awesome commercial for the board game:

Mini-Enid: “Jessica, you stole my boyfriend!”

Mini-Jessica: [Shrug] “Just like in the books! Which is reinforcing that stealing boyfriends and a disregard for any decent behavior towards friends makes me a winner!”

Also, good job on the depiction of the school. And how I pictured the twins. And the school  Students busting down the halls skipping at smiling at all times. Lots of high wasted pants and feathered hair. Gazing into each others eyes over a large popcorn at the movies. High school parties where a card table is set up for  a punch bowl. But wait, why are Liz and Jess both cheerleaders? Didn’t anyone involved with the production of Sweet Valley actually read the books?

Chapter One

In case you didn’t know, sign up on The Sweet Valley Confidential site, and you will get a (not so) secret link to read Chapter One of the book, coming out in March.

The way I am approaching SVC is similar to the way in which many Star Wars fans approached Episodes I-III. I am happy to have more of the Sweet Valley story fed to me by its creators, but it is not the same canon as the first few. They are Star Wars movies, but they are not STAR WARS movies. It’s too far removed from the originals to be considered part of the series. Similar to Confidential, there has been too much social commentary, too much fandom (and criticism) for it to be considered an “untainted” and a true part of the series.

I am certainly not denouncing St. Martin’s Press or Francine’s choice to write it (did I just defend Francine?). Clearly, I am looking forward to it. I am just considering it a novel based on the characters of Sweet Valley, not a book that continues the series. As we know, the twins are frozen in time, both in our childhood experiences and both because they were juniors in Sweet Valley High for infinite amounts of time (and similarly in college for SVU, and in some weird alternate-universe for the Senior Year series). Wouldn’t advancing them in time totally negate the whole idea that these twins are timeless and really exist not to tell a chronological story, but to be put in differing situations for our own amusement (and snark?) No matter what Francine writes, it can’t change this; this is not her fault. The time and era that the originals came out, and the subsequent nostalgia will forever prevent this from being a true continuation.

But shall we get to the chapter? I want to say….fantastic. Fantastic! Yes, I liked it! I was thinking the worst: Liz waking up in Sweet Valley next to her hunky husband Todd, looking at the Pulitzer prizes for journalism, living right next door to Jessica, and still hanging out with the same exact people she did in high school. ugh. UGH! Can you imagine? But no, Liz has been humbled. She’s moved away from Sweet Valley, IS working in writing, but not at the dream job she suspected she would; she’s at a measly periodical. Guys aren’t falling at her feet. And god, it is so cheesy! And just like a so-good-it’s bad romance novel! And using BEYONCE as the most current cultural reference? It’s so trademark Francine to be out of touch with current pop culture references. The jury is still out on if Francine is in on the joke.

Ok, Ok, there’s the bit about Bruce suddenly being Liz’s best bff. I’m not happy about that. And of course she is having a fight with Jessica. I’ll bet you dinner at Cote D’Or that they are fighting over a guy. Is it Todd? Jeffrey? Ken? Some new character they are throwing in?

We can only just wait until March, I guess.

I get by with a little help from my memes.

I guess at some point someone at Bantam books suddenly read one of their own SVH books and thought “we still publish these? Really?”  and realized how horrible they are. Someone thought- “we need a new image!”  So they brought some “young hip” consultants  to revamp the SVH books. So, just like Robin Wilson, within a month, we get new fancy new look covers and more schmaltz and intrigue. the new era of SVH- the one that led to the eighteen-book-long miniseries including police, jail, arrests, fighting, tv dating shows, high school gang rivalry, and of course, everyone’s favorite child-murderess. There’s really no way to capture the absurdness of this one, except for having an imaginary conversation with this book and scream at it and also incorporate some of my favorite memes.

Liz and Jess are getting ready to go out one night with their bestest, nicest, genital-less boyfriends when somehow they both come to the conclusion that they haven’t had a school dance in a while.


Then they come up with the idea that it should be a JUNGLE prom. And…..that they should get the local non-profit, Environmental Alert, to sponsor it.


Later the gang is at a beach party and they CAN’T STOP TALKING ABOUT HOW AWESOME THEIR SCHOOL IS. And here is the description of how happenin’ this party is.

DeeDee Gordon and Bill Chase, the drama club president and top surfer, respectively, were doing the twist. Amy Sutton, whose knockout legs looked longer than ever thanks to a hot pink lycra mini-skirt shimmied up to her boyfriend Barry Rork. Tall, well-built Ken Matthews grasped his petite girlfriend, Terri Adams, by the waist; she squealed with delight as he lifted her high over his head. April Dawson and Michael Harris were hopping around, clapping their hands and singing along to the music.


Meanwhile, kids from Big Mesa come by and raid the party, wearing Big Mesa gear. And by raid, I mean, steal the boombox and knock over the table of chips and dip. Big whoop. No big deal. of course Bruce Patman has a roid rage and THREATENS TO WEAR HIS CLUB X JACKET AT THEM. Apparently, it’s an all-out war of the schools…just like twenty books later? Really? DOES ANY EDITOR EVER FUCKING READ THESE THINGS? In the midst of the raid, Bruce spots a beautiful girl who saves him from being trampled, and his boner gets a boner. Don’t even worry about that, because it’s not resolved until the last book of the series and he ends up dumping her to get an over-the-pants hand job from Liz. But whatever.

Even better: at some point, Big Mesa’s newspaper publishes as issue that INSULTS THE ORACLE. OH NO THEY DI’INT!

Oh then something something, Jessica does something to piss of Liz but then makes Liz feels bad for feeling bad for Jessica, and Elizabeth declares she will never fall prey to Jessica’s selfishness again, it’s time to put Liz first! That will last five minutes.

Then someone decides that there should be a prom king and prom queen, BECAUSE THAT WILL HELP THE ENVIRONMENT. And the group likes the idea so much, they will send the prom queen (not the king, mind you) on a trip to Brazil to represent the org and give speeches.


Obviously, Jessica is thinking about bikinis and men she could hypnotize with her crusty blond bangs, and Elizabeth is thinking about helping poor Brazilllians start a gossip column in their village. This heat things up, and both girls want to be prom queen. Jessica is mad at Liz because obviously, Jessica is destined to be prom queen and Liz should be aware of that. Um, Jessica,

Liz and Jess fight, and Jessica goes into turbo-sociopath mode. They actually have daily prom committee meetings – because the school decided they would sponsor this- because it is the Wakefields after all-and Jessica never shows up and expects Liz to do all the work. liz knows this, but her nipples get hard when she makes to-do lists, so she can’t resist. Then the twins start campaigning for prom queen against each other, like it’s the only thing that matters. And blah blah blah, fight, fight, boyfriend snuggle, silent treatment, etc. Then Jessica decides to not allow people from Big Mesa because of the rivalry to win her favors. And then does a half-assed attempt at sticking to the theme by giving out “save the rainforest” and if A WHOLE RAINFOREST WAS PROBABLY KILLED TO MAKE THESE BUTTONS.

Liz mopes around because she’s fighting with Jessica, and thinks she should maybe drop out of the prom queen campaign. Her friends convince her she’s still worthy, she keeps protesting and OF COURSE they have to tell her a thousand times that she’s fabulous. Enid does a power point presentation for Liz on why she’s such an awesome friend. Except that liz remains a sad Keanu.

Time to get ready for the prom- the twins, although not speaking to each other, bith picked dresses that match their personality. Jessica chooses a pink, low cut number (to represent her vagina) and Liz picks a froffy blue off the shoulder number (to represent the cold glare of judgement). So how did they look? Let’s find out….

My thoughts:

How does Jessica get her hair so….crusty? And SOMEONE GET HER A FLAT IRON…STAT! And Liz….I just don’t even…

Elizabeth decides to make a prom mini-year book for the prom. Documenting all the pics of them prepping the prom and to…remember the three hours they spent in their high school gym? These kids are the most self-fellating bunch of kids ever.

And thus we have the part where Jessica turns into SOCIOPATH-OTRON 5000 ™. She starts seething at Elizabeth for taking what is RIGHTFULLY HERS. Todd wins prom king and she thinks Liz is a shoe-in. She then sees her dancing with Sam, and luckily, some kid wondered in from a another, more realistic YA novel where they drink, and Liz spikes Liz’s drink with vodka. Liz and Sam get drunk after a few sips and they do the tango and the Charleston (YES THAT HAPPENS). Suddenly Big Mesa raids the gym and everyone runs out to their cars, and Liz and Sam jump in the jeep, and apparently have an alcohol blood level of .98, they crash the van and Jessica and Todd run after them, only to see the jeep turned over and Sam and Liz presumably dead.


Meanwhiles, during this time, Lila is seeing a counselor at Project Youth named Nathan because of her traumatic experience with J-Rape Pfeiffer. Who is also a counselor at SVH. Is that ethical? Real-life therapists, please shed some light. What is NOT appropriate is that he calls her “Li” and sees her on the beach and approaches her and wants to hang out with her.

WHAT? One of the first things i did with my new therapist was decide what we would do if we ever saw each other in public (we would not acknowledge each other- that’s how I roll). Lila starts having feelings for Nathan, because of course she’s a damaged, silly woman who will stupidly show misguided affection for the first man that pays attention to her. During the Big Mesa raid, Lila freaks and NATHAN THINKS IT IS A GOOD IDEA TO PULL HER INTO AN EMPTY CLASSROOM SHUT THE DOOR AND ATTEMPT TO EMBRACE HER.

You know what happens in the next few books. The judicial system changes to fit Liz’s needs and Margo drowns children. Double fried-chicken skin butter bacon burgers all around at the Dairi Burger!

In which I Give Away a Prize and also review The Summer of Skinny Dipping

Glad you all liked the interview with Amanda Howells, I think you are all going to like her book too. And you know I wouldn’t just say that if I didn’t mean it!

I’ll admit, I was very skeptical at first. I figured I had seen it all before: summer vacations, trying to fit in with the “in” crowd, arguing with mothers, summer romances…But familiarity is a comforting thing. The Summer of Skinny Dipping has all these familiar themes, but when it is done this well, familiar can be very satisfying.

The short of it is: Sixteen year-old Mia and her family are staying the summer with her cousin’s family in the Hamptons, just as they have every year since she can remember. Only this time, she comes to fin her cousin/best friend Corinne has changed dramatically. Now interested in running with the “it” crowd, Mia finds it harder to connect with her. At the same time, Mia is finding it harder and harder to be accepted by her mother and dealing with rising tensions between her parents. While staying at the beach, Mia meets and befriends Simon, whose family is renting the house next door. They become friends and later become involved. Simon and Mia connect because of their similar issues with parents, finding their place, and expectations of others around them. And then some other stuff happens, but if I told you, you wouldn’t need to read the book! Oh, and Snape kills Voldemort. Or something like that.

Simple enough right? However, the way Howells portrays these events is really smart and subtle. Things aren’t spelled out, we learn them gradually from Mia’s first person narrative. A lot of what Mia is going through has more depth than your run-of-the-mill coming of age story:

  • Mia is self-conscious, but she’s not a total sack sack of sh*t loser (i.e., Lynne Henry). She is unique- she’s smart and insightful, she likes science, she is just insecure about who she is, due to her high school boyfriend seemingly dumping her for no reason, and her mother constantly giving her “advice” in the hopes to “help her”; As in, which bathing suits would be more slimming on her. Most of the time, she has strong convictions, they just get muddled by insecurities.
  • Mia has never been jealous of her cousin Corinne, who has always been beautiful, talented, cultured, and wealthy. Mia has always just been grateful to have Corinne in her life, because she gets to be in the presence of her wonderful qualities, and Corinne has always given her unconditional friendship. We’ve all had a friend like that (haven’t we?)
  • When Mia firsts meets Simon, it’s not some dumb love-at-first-sight ridiculousness that Jessica Wakefield may have. She doesn’t even find him particularly attractive at first. They become friends and she comes to like him the more they talk about their interests, family and life. Although they get a bit mushy and makey-outy when they first get together, they do actually still have real conversations with each other. This is something that id often missing from teen romances (especially all the bs vampire romance stuff). I know I’ve mentioned before how the lack of meaningful conversations between dating couples has been one of my biggest beefs with SVH writing.
  • The author does an amazing job of conveying a feeling that prevails throughout teen-hood and never really goes away (at least for me); the desire to be accepted by the group you are not a part of, despite not even liking them. Mia is fully aware that her cousin and her friends are shallow, mean, and actually all not that interesting. yet shew still yearns for those fleeting moments of acceptance. Mia’s mother is super critical and wants Mia to be more into glamour and performance; despite Mia knowing that is not what she is interested in, she can’t help but wish she could be more like that to get her mother’s acceptance. It seems to be a simple enough concept, but I have seen many of past and recent young adult fiction depicting the “I just wanna be popular” character because popularity is the ultimate prize.
  • The depiction of the adults in Mia’s life (her parents and her aunt and uncle) are realistic and smart. Mia seeks to understand their behavior, and comes to realize they are not as idyllic as she thought when she was younger. Mia struggles with watching Corinne’s relationship dissolve with her aunt and uncle, again shattering her idyllic view of Corinne.

I really wish this book had been available to me in my teens, especially at the beginning of high school. Not to sound trite, but I could have used some validation that this book can bring to being sure of yourself and seeking out those friends that accept you for who you are.

And just to think, what Mia would have to say to Jessica Wakefield if they were ever to meet.

Amanda Howells

The best news is that Amanda Howells has provided a signed copy of this book and a signed copy of The Return of William White (a.k.a. the best Sweet Valley book cover ever) for a giveaway! Just leave a comment with a valid email address by Wednesday at midnight and I’ll pick someone at random as the winner.

And Amanda, hurry up and publish your next novel!

Read more about Amanda Howells here. And if you like the book, tell your friends.

UPDATE: Congrats to Caitlin, our winner! (No not that Caitlin). Please go out and buy The Summer of Skinny Dipping. It’s a great read! You know I wouldn’t just say this if I didn’t mean it.

Dreams Do Come True: An Interview with a Sweet Valley Ghostwriter

When I mention dreams coming true, I meant for me, because in writing this blog, I constantly pull my hair out screaming “WHAT WERE THEY THINKING” and now my questions can be answered. Also, dreams do come true for Amanda Howells, who just published her first novel. Amanda (ghost)wrote the Sweet Valley University book Cyberstalker: The Return of William White Part 1. I haven’t read any SVU books, but I’m going to go ahead and declare that this may be the best book cover in the history of Sweet Valley. Maybe in the world.

Whoa. She’s like inside his head. Dear Christopher Nolan, we know where you get your ideas from. And what is she reaching for? Let’s get down to business.

Amanda Howells is a ghostwriter alum of Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley University series, responsible for such titles as Killer party, Escape To New York, London Calling, and her personal favorite, Cyberstalker: The Return of William White, Part 1. Writing as Amanda Howells, she has just published her first original YA novel, The Summer of Skinny Dipping. Kirkus calls it “a realistic and satisfying chick-lit debut,” and School Library Journal says “With a lyrical yet straightforward voice and a layered plot, this novel will live on for more than a summer.” Amanda lives in Portland, Oregon, and as you can imagine, she is very excited to go from Cyberstalker to this:

SPOILER ALERT: It’s awesome. And awesome in an awesome way, not in an awesome like motorcycle crashes and comas kind of way. I’ll be reviewing it on here in a couple of days. Let’s talk about Amanda: she’s pretty awesome. You can read more about her here. Skinny Dipping is getting lots of press and great reviews, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Meanwhile, she was kind enough to answer my inane questions.

So how did you get the gig ghostwriting?
In the early ’90s I got an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University in NYC. After graduating, a fellow student put me on to 17th Street Productions (now Alloy) which was Francine Pascal’s own development company. My friend had done some ghostwriting for The Babysitters Club and I thought it sounded like tons more fun than waiting tables. So I did a test sample for the Sweet Valley University spinoff series and got picked to be in the pool of ghostwriters from there. I had a couple of friends who tried but failed to get picked for the jobs. Some of the best writers I know were, I think, just too good and too strong in their own right to mimic someone else and spit out formula. Not everyone can write SV novels (it’s a special and yes, dubious talent).

How did it work? Did you get a docket and all things Sweet Valley?
You got an SV “Bible” with character stats (Bruce Patman: blue eyes, black hair, etc.) and summaries of plotlines. Then you got a synopsis—a couple of paragraphs—of the book you were contracted to write, and you expanded it into a chapter-by-chapter outline. Once that was approved, you wrote the book.

Did you get to write your own ideas, or was the story already there?
The story was given to you, which suited me fine. I didn’t come to the series as a fan (I got my pulpy fix via VC Andrews when I was a teen); I came to the series for the professional experience and the paycheck. And while it was great fun writing SVU novels, I liked being told what to do and just doing it. But don’t get me wrong—I worked hard on these. I was a real perfectionist about my SVUs. There’s some skill involved.

What is with the insane book cover?
I’m so in love with that cover! Elizabeth is facing down her stalker, William White, who resurfaces in a “CyberDream” experience she has when The Virtual Reality Fair comes to Sweet Valley. The plot, like all my SVU plots, was supplied to me.

Did you ever get to meet Francine Pascal? What was she like?
We were very close. I spent a lot of time with her and she gave me a gold lavalier necklace when I retired as a ghost…Gotcha! Nope, I never met her. All I knew of FP was that she divided her time between NYC and a villa in the south of France. Sadly there was no Ghostwriter Appreciation Week held at the villa. And no retirement lavalier keepsake either.

How do you feel about having contributed to important pop culture nostalgia?
It was great fun to write for a series that produced both giggles and—often at the same time—culty, reverent praise whenever you mentioned it to people at parties. I appreciate the kitsch factor of the Wakefield universe and of course, in the age of irony, a person gets props for being associated with something like that. Mockery aside, there’s no doubt SV played a pivotal role in YA cultural history. It was around long before 90210, much less Gossip Girl etc. It entertained vast numbers of teen and tween girls for decades. And that is very cool.

How did Sweet Valley affect your own writing?
Ghostwriting was really instructive for me as a young writer. It’s one thing to study creative writing, and I’d written and published a number of short stories by the time I wrote SVUs, but ghostwriting loosened me up. It taught me how to bang out a novel, work to a tight deadline, use a plot map and chapter outlines. Sure, the writing is formula, but it still works out your writing muscles. On the flip side, I had to work hard to detox the conventions of formula when writing my own YA novel. Aside from perhaps channeling a bit of Lila Fowler via a “bad girl” character, I don’t think The Summer of Skinny Dipping and the SV world have much in common. At least, I hope not.

Name your top 5 favorite young adult/teen books.
I have a hard time with top 5s as there are always more than 5… but okay, here, in no particular order:
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry—classic oldie: timeless, thoughtful, bittersweet
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron—since it would be too boring for me to put Catcher in the Rye in this list, I’m instead calling out this excellent coming-of-age tale, a contemporary Catcher.
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen—she’s the reigning master of realistic YA romance. This one is a really well-told, subtle, moving love story, like all of hers.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend—my all-time favorite laugh-out-loud YA.
Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews—because I think I can be honest with The Dairiburger, and we all need some trash in our stash. Plus, repulsive as they were, I was completely captivated by the Dollengangers (who wasn’t?). It takes mad skillz (and, apparently, a dollop of incest) to create something that hideously memorable.

Share a little bit more about your new novel, and your process in developing and writing it.
The Summer of Skinny Dipping is a 100% incest-free teen romance! It is also vampire-free, werewolf-free and is basically an old-fashioned, realistic, and bittersweet love story. It’s about 16-year-old Mia, who is looking forward to a summer at her cousins’ glitzy beach house in the Hamptons. Except that nothing about her vacation goes as expected, in ways both thrilling and tragic.

The book came to me somewhere in between writing all those SVU books as well as several Fearless novels—Francine’s series about Gaia “the girl born without the fear gene. (Yes, I did just say “fear gene.”) I’d never seen myself as a YA author per se, but I just woke up one day with that title in my head. I’d always been drawn to summer-themed novels as a teen and once the title suggested itself, I decided I wanted to try and write a summery novel—but one that sticks with you after summer is over. The Summer of Skinny Dipping is very different from everything else I’d written under my own steam—I write mostly humor-driven short fiction and nonfiction under my real name, Amanda Gersh. But though I hadn’t written my own YA novel before, the story came to me quite quickly and I had a strong sense of the plot and themes even before I started writing. I have a very earnest, sentimental weepy-romantic side to me and I guess it was just ready to come out!

So, yes, the book didn’t take very long to write, but the journey to publication? Almost 10 years! More on that story here for those who are interested.

Next week I’ll be reviewing the book, and sponsoring a giveaway. Thanks again Amanda!