Recently, Francine Pascal, creator of the Sweet Valley High series was in Salt Lake City. There are two possible reasons why I may have been invited to interview Pascal. One is that her work is among the most widely sold books for young adults and pre-adolescents of the past decade. Francine Pascal's name needs to be reckoned with.
The other reason may be my open criticism of the "romance series" - with sub-literary standard - which consume young readers' time and interest.The author is very aware of her impact on book sales with the Sweet Valley High, Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley Kids and the Caitlin trilogy with an astonishing total of more than 62 million books in print.
While she was not surprised at the criticism of the "series" market, she was ready to set me straight that her books did not fall into the category of worthless plots where nothing happens.
Following is an interview with the author:
Sorensen: Tell me what is the most satisfying thing that has come about through the "Sweet Valley . . . " series?
Pascal: Love of reading is one of the most satisfying things. I get letters from young readers - with few exceptions they are girls - and the category that most of them fall into is: "I used to hate to read, but now I read in the night, and it is so exciting."
That to me, is the best thing about this series because it is introducing books to some who might never be reading. It's the elements in Sweet Valley that bring them to reading.
Sorensen: And what are those?
Pascal: First of all easier reading. And second, they are strongly plotted.
Young readers have the series, the "romantic novels," but nothing happens in them. You could wait for the whole book for the boy to kiss you! That's boring! I can't stand stuff like that!
What I set out to do - because I knew that children were bored with those things - was to have heavy plotted stories. Action and excitement all were important and are a part of a child's life - and adult's life.
Another element is the continuing characters. Then there is the hook at the end with a seed of a story in the next of the series. Those are the elements that grab the kids.
Sorensen: Why is it important to have easier reading?
Pascal: My books appeal to kids whojust can't read or don't. I believe it is better for them to have something to read and like what they read than not read at all.
Ideally, they will begin reading the Sweet Valley and then they will - some of them - move to more sophisticated young adult books. By the way, I write those, too. In fact, that's where I started writing, with "Hangin' Out with Cici" which was later aired as the ABC-TV After School Special called "My Mother Was Never a Kid."
Sorensen: Have you written others for young adults?
Pascal: "The Hand-Me-Down Kid" was also the basis for a television after school special. "My First Love and Other Disasters" and "Love and Betrayal and Hold the Mayo" are sequels of a sort with Cici.
These are more what I call "traditional" literature.
Sorensen: There have been criticisms of the series-type pulp books, you must be aware of that? What are your feelings about being on the defensive, etc.?
Pascal: At first, many librarians were very cautious about the series, but now they have had to start accepting the books that kids are reading. It is because of things like Sweet Valley that they have changed, I believe.
I seldom get criticism from librarians now. They now see that kids will come into their libraries and all is forgiven. I understand it.
Sorensen: Do you think that reluctant readers - maybe other readers, too - could get `hooked' on Sweet Valley and not move?
Pascal: I hope they don't read Sweet Valley all their lives and may go to Sidney Sheldon and things like that. But a lot will go on to sophisticated young adult books and then good literature.
Sorensen: What do you perceive as the differences between the `young romances' and the Sweet Valley series?
Pascal: My books are romances but romances of ideals; honor, love, sacrifice. These are wonderful values; values that kids believe in. They're in that point where kids are seeking something to look forward to. My books do that.
Sorensen: For what ages were your books written and for whom do they most often appeal?
Pascal: They begin with stories for 6-year-olds (Sweet Valley Kids) and run up to 15-year-olds. Most who write to me are around 12 and 13. No matter what age, I give the children something they can identify with. It satisfies them, satisfies their idealism, according to what they say in their letters.
Sorensen: Talk about your writing, the source and technique.
Pascal: When I write my outline, if I don't have that moment - like in "Casablanca" - when I choke up, then the outline is not working. I need that moment. Quite on the contrary in the storyline, however. Things don't always work out. People die in my stories. People learn an awful lot; for example, they don't have to be just beautiful. Sometimes the characters fall on their faces. At times they lie. But usually they grow. A most common theme is "Right will win" But it is hard, and it's sometimes a compromise. I don't hold back on the plots and the themes.
Sorensen: Do some of the children's letters come with suggested plot lines?
Pascal: They do make suggestions and some even say, If you use this, then I expect credit.
One of my favorite letters is from a learning disabled girl. She couldn't sit and concentrate but Sweet Valley has made her into a reader.
"It made me feel good inside . . . " said another letter.
One girl suggested that I continue the series with "Sweet Valley College" followed by "Sweet Valley Mother" and then "Sweet Valley Baby."
One girl wrote, "I want to be on the cover. I want to be outgoing, not snobby but popular."
Then there is the 10-year-old who said, "If you stop creating this series, I wish to continue in your place."
Some girls write to Jessica and Elizabeth as if they're people.
Sorensen: Tell me about your writing: its beginnings, what things in your life have influenced it, your ongoing career?
Pascal: I've been writing since I was a child; poetry, songs plays. In high school I wrote a column in the school paper and also in college.
I studied journalism at NYU.
My husband, John Pascal, was a journalist. He was a columnist for Newsday.
My brother was Michael Stewart who wrote "Hello, Dolly!" "Carnival," "Barnum," and "42nd Street."
Sorensen: Other projects?
Pascal: I will be executive producer on a new half-hour afternoon soap opera based on the Sweet Valley series. I have an enormous stake in this thing . . .. The book series is too important to have the TV take away from it.
Sorensen: What about other components of the Sweet Valley brand. I understand there is a board game?
Pascal: A Milton Bradley game for players 8-years-old and up.
I have complete control over anything that would carry Sweet Valley name like the book bags, night shirts, etc.
What I am doing now is writing adult things (I don't want to stay in Sweet Valley all my life!)
Pascal admits that the idea for the Sweet Valley series came from her own memories of growing up in New York and the lives of her three daughters. The themes are universal, which makes them successful worldwide in English and in more than a dozen other languages. "I think the books appeal because teenagers today are still an idealistic breed."