Reading for Pleasure: How Sweet Valley High Made Me a Life-Long Reader

As I sifted through piles of my favourite childhood books, I looked back fondly at all the preteen fluff I loved so much (including, yes, Sweet Valley High). Whether it's a timeless classic or not, a beloved book can help a child develop a life-long habit of reading for pleasure.

As a kid, I was constantly reading, scrunched down in my school-bus seat or walking slowly home from the bus stop, oblivious to my surroundings as I turned page after page. I used to bring a book to the movies—why waste those few minutes before the feature started? (I was very cool, as you can imagine.)

It was only a matter of time before my parents declared that it was time for me to get my childhood books out of their basement; that time came this past Christmas. Looking through my old paperbacks, I was struck by how many of my treasured favourites were… let’s call them light reads. Not great literature by any stretch. And yet it was these books that kept me reading virtually non-stop. 

1. Sweet Valley High

I had a deep love of the Sweet Valley High books by Francine Pascal. It never bothered me to have to re-read the setup every single time: sixteen-year-old Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, with their perfect size-six figures and the little red Fiat they shared… I identified more with Elizabeth's personality but shared a name with Jessica, so these books were made for me, see?

I had an out-of-town friend who used to come visit for March Break, and we would spend the better part of our week sitting side by side, not talking or playing, but reading our SVHs and then gossipping about what Jess, Liz, Enid, Lila, Bruce and Todd were up to. So. Much. Fun. And what a thrill when a big fat Super Edition came out. This series was available at just the right time in my life to capture my full reading attention.

Sweet Valley High books, by Francine Pascal

2. The Baby-Sitters Club

I just adored Ann M. Martin's Baby-Sitters Club books. My friends and I used to dream of starting our own baby-sitting club, but none of us had our own personal phone line like Claudia's, let alone the wherewithal to start and run a business. But it sure was fun to read about kids who did. Cartoonist Raina Telgemeier has been redoing these as graphic novels and introducing a new generation of young girls to these stories. Draw faster, Raina; our daughters need more!

Baby-Sitters Club books, by Ann M. Martin

3. Christopher Pike

When I got a little older, I got hooked on Christopher Pike's teen thrillers. Oh, how I loved these. His books felt so grown-up. They were the epitome of the "you stay here, I'll go for help" genre. Every time I was near a Coles [bookstore] I'd go straight for the P section and pray he'd have a new book out. 

Christopher Pike books

4. Sweet Dreams

I had a pile of these Sweet Dreams books, which I don’t really remember reading, but every cover photo was super familiar once I saw it. Teen romance at its most formulaic; exactly what I looked for in a book. (I love how there are some French ones in the collection; some well-meaning adult thought "she likes these in English; I bet our French-Immersion kid will like them in French, too!" Pretty sure I never opened those—come on, French reading is school work! The depths of my teen-junk reading knew some bounds, it seems.)

Sweet Dreams books

5. I'm Pretty Sure I'm the Only Person Who's Ever Heard of These

These boxes also contained a lot of books I hadn't thought of or heard of in twenty-five years. I couldn't have even told you they existed until I unearthed them from those boxes, but they all made me really nostalgic, so they must've been important to me. Here's an example: a short series called Out of this World by Marilyn Kaye, about a fashionable female alien named Max who becomes a rock star (I think?). Anybody else read these?

Out of this World b Marilyn Kaye

Another miscellaneous one that strikes deep to the core of my memory is Ask Anybody by Constance C. Greene. I have no idea what it's about, or at what age I read it, but I can vividly see myself choosing it off the table at the (event-of-the-year) Scholastic book fair. And of course I remember Lois Lowry's Anastasia Krupnik fondly (I read it to my kids last year), and apparently I also enjoyed some sequels!

Anastasia books and Ask Anybody

6. Sweet Valley Twins

The Sweet Valley world flashed back to when the girls were maybe twelve, adding a new series to the franchise and tapping into a whole new market of younger female readers. I read a few Sweet Valley Twins books, but I'm pretty sure these mostly belonged to my younger sister. Our parents loved to joke that one day we'd be reading about the Sweet Valley Nursing Home. (I would totally read that. A friend recently bought me a copy of Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later that she spotted on a library sell-off table… I fully intend to read it—and enjoy it.)

Sweet Valley Twins

I definitely have some treasured classics from that time in my life, too, but in these boxes the mindless preteen books outnumbered the classics ten-to-one. In our house it was always better to read something than to read nothing, a philosophy I’ve tried to carry forward with my own kids. I was allowed to discover the books that made me happy, and for that I'm grateful; it made me a life-long reader. Although my literary tastes evolved (improved, I like to think...) as I got older, I still really enjoy a lighter mystery or thriller or even a chick-lit novel—so many people are writing such fun, page-turning stuff these days! There's something so delicious about that just-one-more-chapter drive that can keep you reading till 2 a.m.

Miscellaneous Treasures

Here's a look into just one of my six boxes of miscellaneous early chapter books. Any of these look familiar to you? 

Box of early chapter books

After I went through all the boxes, I decided not to keep too many of those old books. I don’t really have room, and I’m probably kidding myself to think my kids will ever want to read Forbidden Love (although they should!). My parents were able to donate most of them to a local public school that was very grateful to have them for its rummage sale. The ones I did keep, I admit, tended to lean more toward the classics (the Anne books, the Booky books, Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time…). But I snapped some pictures to make sure I’d always remember my humble, and oh-so-entertaining, reading beginnings.

Do you remember any of these? What preteen/teen fluff did you enjoy as a young reader?

With all the fun fiction being written, I love that it's my job to help bring it into the world. I've recently had the good fortune to edit a wide variety of fictional writing: a private-eye novel set in Toronto, a romance set on a ranch, a YA novel about a runaway teen couple, another YA novel about an alternate universe, a fictional biography of a missing musician… It's opened my eyes to new genres and made me even more keen to broaden my literary horizons. Keep churning out that writing, everyone—your readers are waiting. 

Looking for an editor to make sure your story really sings? I'd love to help. Please get in touch.

One last pic: the bookplate stickers I used to label every one of my favourite books.