These Words Matter: Sara Barnard

These Words Matter: Sara BarnardI can’t remember when I first read my first Sweet Valley book. You’d think, given all the things I’m about to say about this life-shaping series, that I’d remember every detail of my first journey into this sunbleached piece of American perfection, but I don’t. What I have is this sense of always reading Sweet Valley Twins books, in that same way you always played with Sylvanian families or Lego; it was just a part of your life, until that day when it wasn’t. The end of something beloved in childhood has a clarity; a shape. The beginning is, at best, blurred.

I loved Sweet Valley with the ardent passion of any fangirl. The Sweet Valley books are as fantastically fictional as fiction gets, bearing almost no resemblance to a sense of reality (nor internal consistency, to be perfectly honest). The books – prequels to the better-known Sweet Valley High books – centered around twin sisters Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, who lived in the idyllic town – is it even a town? I still don’t know. Maybe it’s a suburb? – of Sweet Valley. They were opposites – Jessica wild and tempestuous, Elizabeth kind and responsible – and best friends. They had dozens of friends, a perfect home life and the kind of exciting adventures that always resolved themselves by the end of the book and, more often than not, were never mentioned again. It was a safe world and I knew it better than I knew my own. I could have walked into the Wakefields’ split-level ranch. (I say this despite having no clue what a split-level ranch actually is.) I would have known all the characters on sight. I wanted to be Elizabeth Wakefield.

With 2017 eyes and a 30 year old mind, I know that these books are, at best, joyful nonsense and, at worst, deeply problematic. They contain fat-shaming, racial stereotypes, class issues and some questionable moral lessons. The series as a whole is rife with continuity errors, and that’s not even getting started on how the Twins series fits with everything we know of the Sweet Valley world in the SVH books, not to mention the other prequels (Sweet Valley Kids) and various spin-offs (Sweet Valley Junior High, my very favourites) that emerged over the decades since Francine Pascal first dreamed up two identical blonds with peaches-and-cream complexions and heart-shaped faces.

My ten-year-old self, though? I loved them, deeply and truly. This was back in the days before the internet was The Internet, before Amazon (I KNOW RIGHT), and these were American books that were published only sporadically in the UK, so finding them was part of the joy. Over about three or four years or so I grew my collection of SVT books through regular visits to secondhand bookshops, charity shops and jumble sales with my dad who, I realise now, loved having a small companion who enjoyed hunting through old books as much as he did. When he was in a charity shop without me, he’d still look for the SVT spine. If I found the books in normal bookshops – brand new and so shiny – I’d carefully negotiate pocket money in advance to take one home with me. One particularly magic afternoon, when Dad and I had gone on a trip to Pickering during a family holiday, I found a tottering pile of SVT books in a secondhand bookshop. The motherlode. I hunted through them, picking out all the books I didn’t own, then narrowing it down to the small number I was allowed to buy with the money I had, pocket money calculated in advance and a list of chores I would complete in exchange for a loan from Dad. (He very rarely outright bought books for me, which is something I’m glad of now – books are never anything but utterly precious, still.)

This is all to say that my love of Sweet Valley went far beyond the words on the pages.

It went beyond Elizabeth and Jessica, even, though I loved and knew them like they belonged to me. It was about my collection that sat in number order on the bookshelves my dad put up for me for that very purpose. It was remembering where I’d bought each book; the price scribbled in pencil on the inside flap. It was knowing each story by heart but reading it again anyway. It was choosing which three to take with me on a train journey that took an hour. It was Dad telling me about a new website called Amazon, where you can order books from America, and look, there are Sweet Valley books! For your birthday, you can choose five. I’ll buy something too, and then the shipping is free!

And that is what I’ve taken with me into my adulthood as a writer (and still, of course, a reader). It’s the understanding that books, especially books we read during childhood and adolescence, are about more than one story. That a reader’s love for a book goes far beyond the sum of its parts, and that they’ll carry it forever. It’s not always a love that makes sense, and it’s not always for a book that will stand the test of time, but it’s a true love.

I no longer own any Sweet Valley books – I sold and donated my entire collection in small batches many years ago – but they’re still a part of me, in that strange way of loved childhood things.

Sara Barnard is the author of Beautiful Broken Things (a Zoella Book Club pick), A Quiet Kind of Thunder, and the forthcoming Goodbye, Perfect (out February 8, 2018 by Macmillan Children's Books). Sara lives in Brighton and does all her best writing on trains. She has been writing ever since she was too small to reach the 'on' switch on the family Amstrad computer. She gets her love of words from her dad, who made sure she always had books to read.

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