In the mythical town of Sweet Valley, Calif., where the sun almost always shines and problems rarely get more serious than how to handle a crush on the new cute boy in school, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield have forged a larger-than-life path.
Elizabeth and Jessica are identical twins with blond hair, blue-green eyes, dimples and perfect size 6 figures. They have a large circle of friends -- and a much larger circle of fans who look forward to their every move with bated breath.
If you're an adolescent girl, or if you know an adolescent girl, chances are you've heard of the Wakefield twins.
Stars of three series of books -- Sweet Valley High, the original; Sweet Valley Twins, which chronicles their middle school adventures; and Sweet Valley Kids, the newest addition for younger readers, which covers their elementary school years -- the Wakefield twins are teaching a generation of girls that life doesn't get much better than being blond, beautiful and a twin.
"The Sweet Valley books are not too complex, not too overwhelming," said Judy Clark, assistant manager of Waldenbooks in Towson. "Maybe that appeals to kids at a time when the world is so complex."
Since the first Sweet Valley High book was published by Bantam in 1983, there have been 69 volumes in the series. Sweet Valley Twins has its 42nd monthly installment coming out next month, and the 12th Sweet Valley Kids book is due in October.
In all, the books -- which were created and are plotted by Francine Pascal and written by a team of writers -- have sold over 50 million copies in 13 languages. They have spawned a growing collection of products, including puzzles, diaries, calendars, a Filofax-type datebook and one of Milton Bradley's best-selling board games, "Sweet Valley High." A line of sleepwear is in the works. Rights to Ken and Barbie-type dolls are being negotiated. A TV series is imminent.
If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is perhaps not to underestimate the power of adolescent girls. Sweet Valley readers are about 99.5 percent female, if the 1,000 fan letters Francine Pascal gets each month are indicative.
Like Rita Freydel, they may have trouble articulating the appeal of the books.
"I read a lot and started reading the Sweet Valley books about a year ago," said the 13-year-old eighth-grader at Pimlico Middle School in Baltimore. "They're just interesting. If you read one book, you have to read the next to find out what happens next."
It is the characters rather than the cliff-hanging plots that drew her into Sweet Valley, Rita added. "Elizabeth is my type," she said. "Jessica is a snob, but she's OK. Her friends are real snobby."
Amy Scotten, an 11-year-old North Harford Middle School sixth-grader, finds the books "fun and exciting." She has read almost all the "Twins" series, skips around in the "High" series and finds the "Kids" too elementary to keep her interested. "I can relate to some of the things that happen in the books," she said. "They seem realistic."
Francine Pascal, the New York author who created Sweet Valley, describes the message of the books as "right does win -- but with compromise." She aims her plots, she added, at "the innocence of young people who really believe in friendship and loyalty and love. I give them that purity."
In a typical plot, Elizabeth struggles with a renewed relationship with her boyfriend Todd, who had left town but returned when his father became CEO of a local firm. Now he's a rich kid at Lovett Academy, the swanky private school to which Jessica decides she wants to transfer. Meanwhile Sweet Valley High and Talbot face off in an athletic competition as a Talbot girl tries to steal Todd from Elizabeth and subvert the competition.
Does anyone doubt that Sweet Valley High will win, that Todd and Elizabeth will stay together, that Jessica will decide not to transfer? Not if you've read any other Sweet Valley books, you don't.
"We don't claim that they are great literature," said Don Weiss, the New York businessman who packages the Sweet Valley books. "But they are fun reads and give the message that nice guys finish first, that honesty is rewarded and that girls should be self-actualizing and stand up for themselves."
So why do some children's librarians and book experts gulp in dismay when the subject of Sweet Valley and other similar series comes up?
"I don't think they're harmful and dangerous, but they're not positive," said Judith Rosenfeld, librarian at Park School. "Series books are part of growing up, it's a stage. But if a child was reading only Sweet Valley books, I'd be concerned. They are predictable, they are stereotypical, there is no character development."
JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park, agrees. She does not stock Sweet Valley or Babysitters Club or any of the myriad other series now available, although she will special order them on request.