When I was a tween, the most important books being published were Ann M. Martin’s Baby-sitters Club series and Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley Twins* books. Both series were about tween girls who got up to pretty neat stuff, and in each series there was a girl with whom any reader could identify (I was totally Mary-Ann but wished I was Stacey in the BSC universe, and I was a full on Elizabeth at Sweet Valley). The two series were prolific — Wikipedia tells me that the BSC numbered 132 not counting spin-offs and special issues, and SVT similarly numbered 118 regular books, plus special issues. Both series started in 1986 and targeted the middle school girl market with great success.
Both series produced tons of special issues: double-length or special theme books where the characters have specific adventures that seem to fall outside the usual universe. For my last Book Riot post before Christmas, I thought I’d compare Baby-sitters Club Super Mystery #4: Baby-sitters’ Christmas Chiller with Sweet Valley Twins Super Chiller #1: The Christmas Ghost to determine which series provides the best holiday-themed thrills while still offering tween girls the things they need in their formula fiction: pretty clothes, friendship angst, discussion of horsies, and G-rated boytalk. Who will emerge victorious?
Round 1: Holiday-Themed Thrills
BSC: There are three mysteries/ghost stories to be solved in this novel. Claudia and Stacey are in New York for the holidays, and Stacey’s boyfriend seems a little… off. At the same time, creepy stuff keeps happening to Stacey: someone is following her, leaving her creepy gifts (a Jack in the Box with her face on it, covered in red paint to look like blood!), and luring her to a darkened basement. Meanwhile, back in Stoneybrook, Mallory and Jessi find a pregnant woman with amnesia and need to discover her true identity before she gives birth — on Christmas Eve! (Also they call the lady Mary. Mary who has a baby on Christmas Eve. No, I’m not kidding.) The rest of the BSC girls are on the trail of a robber who has been targeting homes in Kristy’s neighbourhood.
SVT: Jessica, always the super-snobby and mildly bitchy twin, has been extra selfish this year: so selfish, in fact, that even perfect Elizabeth is starting to comment. After pretending to be Elizabeth to meet a movie star, Jessica is visited on Christmas Eve by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future as they try to convince her to change her selfish ways.
Advantage: BSC. Three mysteries for the price of one, for starters! And while anyone know knows the tale of A Christmas Carol knows how things will work out for Jessica, the peril seems very real for my beloved Stacey. Definitely more thrills from the BSC, thought props for the effective homage to Dickens in SVT.
Round Two: Pretty Clothes
BSC: The hilarious Kim over at What Claudia Wore has been commenting on the amazing outfits of Claudia Kishi from the Baby-sitters Club for some time now, so I knew I would find something promising in these pages. (Kim also rightly points out that the mysteries are pretty ridiculous in general.) But this was amazing:
Claudia always manages to look terrific. That’s the artist at work — on the artist. For example, that Wednesday was cold and gray outside, but inside everything was brightened up by Claudia’s rainbow look. She had braided her long, jet-black hair into a single braid with narrow red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and purple ribbons woven in. Her short red turtleneck dress had a braided yellow belt, and she was wearing purple tights, yellow scrunch socks, and black Docs. Her earrings were in the shape of Christmas trees, but they were painted in rainbow colors, instead of just green. On some people, this might have been too much…
NO WAY. TOO MUCH? I REFUSE TO BELIEVE THAT. In fact, I am wearing that outfit to work tomorrow. Oh my God, I am, like, rolling in admiration of 1990s delight. Retro deliciousness. Similarly, Stacey’s outfit does not fail to impress:
That day, she was wearing a short dark blue skirt and a light blue and green patterned sweater that was cropped short in the front and hung long in the back. Her tights matched her skirt, and she wore navy ankle boots with pointed toes that looked like elf shoes. Gold star earrings dangled from each ear, and she’d twisted her hair into a sleek knot.
Novels targeted at boys do not include such passages, I imagine.
SVT: The clothes are still retro fun, but there’s disappointingly little attention to detail in the descriptions: “She wore a lavender sweater and black miniskirt with leggings and dangling earrings.” BUT WHAT COLOUR ARE THE EARRINGS AND HOW IS SHE WEARING HER HAIR? How am I going to emulate that outfit without any description of the shoes? I ask you.
Advantage: BSC. In fairness, with Claudia around, no one else had a chance.
Round Three: Friendship Angst
BSC: If there’s one thing preteen girls are amazing at, it’s falling in and out of friendship. No one loves or hates as intensely as a 12-year-old girl. That’s one thing that is missing from the Baby-sitter’s Club — they do not scuffle nearly enough. This book is no exception. You guys, Kristy is bossy as hell. Seriously, she’s kind of a bitch. Why don’t they tell her to step off occasionally? Like when she gets mad because people want to end the meeting early BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS. Ahem. Anyway. Preteen novels usually deal with the ups and downs of friendship, and the BSC occasionally does too, but not in this issue.
SVT: Oh, so much delightful friendship angst in this novel. Jessica and Elizabeth and twins, but they’re also best friends — except for when the aren’t, because long-suffering Elizabeth has had enough of Jessica’s selfishness. And what if Jessica’s friends find out and she becomes unpopular? Much meditation here on the nature of friendship.
Advantage: SVT. By a mile. Tweeniebopper girls fight and break-up and cry and get back together like they’re Dawson Leery. SVT captures that beautifully.
Round Four: Discussion about Horsies
BSC: Now I was never into horses as a kid — they were always huge and spooked me if I got up close, though I loved feeding them carrots — but I understand that as middle school girls go, I was in the minority by a zillion miles. In the BSC, the horse-crazy girls are Mallory and Jessi, and their encyclopedic knowledge of horse bridals helps to solve a crime. Cuz that’s a thing that could happen.
SVT: You like horses, little girl? Yeah. Course you do. Horses are awesome. But you know what’s more awesome? UNICORNS. PURPLE UNICORNS. And in this novel, the Ghost of Christmas Present? Yeah, he’s a goddamn purple unicorn. Eat it, Dickens. Francine Pascale’s going to show you how you get a little girl to learn the true goddamned meaning of Christmas!
Advantage: SVT. Did you honestly need to ask?
Round Five: G-Rated Boytalk
BSC: My friends and I used to skim books to find the parts where they talked about boyfriends, because how to talk to boys was of the utmost importance to a group of middle school girls who wouldn’t actually talk to boys for another 4-6 years. The Baby-sitter’s Club was always promising because of Logan, perfect boyfriend and only boy baby-sitter in Stoneybrook (so beloved that readers requested he have a story of his own!). In this issue, though, we have Ethan, Stacey’s New York boyfriend who seems really creepy and icky and has a lunatic stalker ex named (no, I am not making this up) Cybil. Aren’t these people supposed to be in grade eight?
SVT: Much age-appropriate boy craziness, particularly surrounding trying to make grade six boys stand under mistletoe.
Advantage: SVT. Stacey’s boyfriend turns out not to be evil, but he’s pretty creep-tastic and not at all unthreateningly adorable for most of the text. Plus, every middle school girl I knew had a crush on the older brother in the Sweet Valley series, and he’s very sweet in this issue.
Winner: Sweet Valley Twins, with three out of a possible five categories. I am genuinely shocked to come to this conclusion as I was a much bigger BSC fan in my own tween years, but comparing these two particular books I think the purple unicorn brought the win. But I know some former BSC-diehards will disagree. Does anyone demand a rematch?
* Yes, I know Sweet Valley Twins was a spin-off of the existing Sweet Valley High franchise, but I’m comparing tween series to tween series here. Sweet Valley High will get its due in a future throwdown, I promise — let me know if you’ve got an idea for a good comparison series.
Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature and teaches in the Vancouver area. She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Follow her on Twitter: @mittenstrings