Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sweet & Scary

I recently discovered this blog called Are You There, Youth? It's Me, Nikki, where this woman re-reads and discusses (mostly) middle grade books from her childhood. Reading through her entries got me thinking... maybe it's time for me to pick up another Baby-Sitters Club book. Re-reading those is always a pleasant pasttime. Well, re-reading the earlier books, at least. 

Thinking about the BSC then got my mind whirling about some of the other tweeny book series I used to read when I was in 4th-9th grade. Before I got into the BSC, I was all about Sleepover Friends -- Patti, Stephanie, Lauren, and Kate, and their weekly forays into cheesy movies and gallons of Dr. Pepper. Sadly, our local library didn't have many SF books in circulation, and as I crossed over to BSC (which had 34 books and three Super Specials when I discovered it), I was still at the mercy of the library, which might have only 3 or 4 of those books in at a time. I read the entire BSC series out of order, but it didn't matter, I still loved it. And yet, I longed for other, similar books, as well....

Somewhere along the line, I discovered Sweet Valley Twins. For those unaware, that was kind of a prequel/spinoff series of Sweet Valley High (which I never got into.) Sweet Valley Twins was all about twins Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield as sixth graders, as well as their friends and crushes. Unfortunately, Jessica and Elizabeth were about the only characters I cared about. Jessica's friends in the Unicorn Club were huge bitches, and Elizabeth's friends were mostly bores.

Even though I never got around to reading all the SVT books, and though I certainly didn't love that series as much as the BSC, there were a couple of stories that were memorable for me, and it's possible that I liked them because they went places the BSC dared not go.

Two in particular were:

#42, Jessica's Secret, which had Elizabeth getting her period, so Jessica lies and says she's gotten hers too! Then Jessica tries to act all badass to prove her "maturity". By the end of the book, she does get her period, so all is well.

Look at her all angry on the cover. Boo-hoo, why can't I have some PMS, too?

Another book was...

#68: The Middle School Gets Married, in which kids at school are paired up and have to plan a household menu, budget, etc., and take care of an egg. I was always jealous of kids who got to do this project, since it sounded like fun, and yet my school never went down Egg Road.

Reading the synopsis snippets of the other SVT books on Wikipedia, I'm thinking I'm glad I outgrew the series when I did, because it looks like things got weird. 

These are actual SVT book descriptions:

  • Deadly Voyage: The twins and friends are on a field trip on a boat... but the adults get left behind and the boat is being navigated by two crooks who robbed a bank!
  • Too Scared to Sleep: When the twins and friends start babysitting a new family in town, supernatural things happen.
  • The Beast Is Watching You: The events of Too Scared To Sleep continue, as the kids the twins and friends sit for have very realistic dreams about a disfigured girl, and awake injured.
  • The Beast Must Die: The strange dreams and apparent supernatural events continue.
  • If I Die Before I Wake (Magna Ed. #4): The twins and friends battle Eva Sullivan, the horrible "dream monster."
  • Don't Go In the Basement: When the principal, Mr. Clark, has to go out of town, he asks the twins and their friends to house-sit. While there, they find unusual things that cause them to believe Mr. Clark has murdered his wife.
  • Jessica's Animal Instincts: Taking care of animals is easy! That's what Elizabeth and Jessica and their friends think when they volunteer at the Sweet Valley Zoo, until Elizabeth accidentally lets a mischievous monkey named Spanky out of his cage and he begins showing up in the strangest places.

I think it may be safe to say Sweet Valley Twins jumped a couple of sharks, there.

But what I want to talk about today isn't those wacky, later books, but rather two of the other SVT books that I remember. In fact, I even collected these two as an adult, so I could feed my nostalgia frenzy whenever it occurred. BUT, ya know, I really do have a crapload of books, and so I thought I might as well re-read these, see how they hold up, and if they don't? Give them away. 

And, okay, I needed to read a few more books in 2017 to make my Goodreads goal, but that's... entirely beside the point.

THE GHOST IN THE GRAVEYARD (Super Chiller), 1990

This book has so many layers. It's like a 7-layer ice cream cake that's been sitting out in the sun for a day and a half. Which is to say, its layers are mush and the book kind of sucks, but there's a cool "long-lost twins" element to it. And also ghosts.

Sam Sloane has just moved to Sweet Valley and Jessica and Elizabeth try to help him fit in. But Sam has a weird sense of deja vu about the town. He knows he was born in Sweet Valley, but he left the town at age 1 after being orphaned and adopted, so why does he remember so much about it?

Most of the kids in town watch a made-for-TV-movie about reincarnation one night, so that sets them off thinking about past lives. Bitchy rich girl Lila Fowler is convinced she's reincarnated from Cleopatra, which pisses of Jessica, who then tries to get revenge by pretending she is a reincarnated gold miner who may just know where a hidden treasure lies. (She does not.)

Meanwhile, Sam is being eerily drawn to an old, unoccupied house, and later to a graveyard, where his birth parents are buried. There he sees a ghostly figure who looks just like him. Only it turns out the ghost is a real kid named David, who turns out to be Sam's identical twin brother. (David goes to "the other middle school," which is why nobody knows him.) Just like Tia and Tamera of Sister Sister in later years, these boys were adopted out separately and had no idea of the others' existence before now. After Sam and David learn the truth, they begin to bond.

The kids still don't know why that old house has been drawing Sam in, though. One day, they meet an old caretaker at the house who looks like an old dude from a dream Sam and David have both been having for ages, involving a storm and a boat. Also, David has an old photo of the house (with the boys' bio parents in front of it) and the old dude's face is in the window? Maybe? What could it MEAN?

There's another mystery nagging Sam. (I told you there were layers galore!) He knows (from looking at gravestones) that one of his relatives died when he was about 12 years old. Sam goes to the library to dig up more information about this relative, and learns that this boy looked exactly like him (and David), and that he died the day before his 12th birthday. (Gasp! Today is the day before SAM AND DAVID'S 12th birthday!) Also that he drowned in a boating accident! 

Sam calls David immediately, and learns from his mom that David and his dad have just set out... TO GO SAILING! Sam just knows (because... psychic twin thing? History repeating itself?) that David is going to get caught up in a surprise storm and possibly die. He contacts Jessica and Elizabeth and they rush to the marina just as a storm comes in. They can see David and his dad out in the boat, yelling for help. A wave crashes over the boat. Then Sam, on shore, passes out.

When he comes to, Sam learns that a Coast Guard boat picked up David's dad, but that David has not been found. But Sam has a dream that tells him where David is -- in a little boathouse about a mile away. They go to look for David, and there he is, just where the dream said he would be! He was pulled out of the water by none other than that caretaker from earlier, who (it turns out?) was the ghostly grandfather of that 12-year-old that died years ago! AND, when Sam and David look at that one photograph again, the old man's face is no longer in the window! But they see something else -- a door on the side of the house that wasn't there before...

So they go to the house and find some old papers and learn that the house (which was swindled away from the family some years before) really does belong to their family after all. So now Sam and David have a house of their own. Happy 12th birthday, kids!

Oh man, I'm exhausted. The book has so many things going on. Ghosts, graveyards, psychic long-lost twins, possible reincarnation, false memories, psychic dreams, hidden doorways, happy endings. WOW.

Time for something tamer...

THE BIG CAMP SECRET (Super Edition), 1989

OMG CAMP!!!1 For some reason, middle grade summer camp books = love. I'm not alone in this feeling. There was a time, actually, when I would read any book set at camp. Until I realized that just like every genre, the Summer Camp genre has its share of stinkers. (I'm looking at you, Camp Sunnyside Friends #1: No Boys Allowed).

So in this one, Jessica and Elizabeth and some of their friends head to Camp Loconda for two weeks. (Interesting camp name choice, BTW. "Loconda" is Italian for "inn." You know, cuz it IS a place to stay. And yet it also kind of sounds like it could almost be a word from a First Nations or Native American language, which is usually where fictional camps seem to get their names (Camp Mohawk in the Baby-Sitters Club, Camp Lakota on Full House.

One of the twins' friends, Grace, is supposed to go to camp, but her parents are always fighting and are thisclose to getting a divorce, so they decide to take separate vacations and send Grace to stay with her godmother instead of going to camp. But Grace wants none of that and sneaks aboard a bus to Camp Loconda anyway. She finds an abandoned cabin upon a hill and stays there for a couple days. The light in her cabin (an old kerosene lamp) attracts the attention of the Twins, who think the cabin must be haunted. Of course, they must investigate.

Once they discover Grace is there, Jessica and Elizabeth convince her to sneak into camp and integrate into the activities. There are many clever ways in which they "hide" Grace in plain sight for the next week or so. The counselors never catch on, but every girl in camp seems to know about the ruse. One of the other campers, Barbara, the obligatory Camp Bitch, uses this information to blackmail the other girls into doing her bidding.

So about Barbara. The Big Camp Secret was published nine years after Paula Danziger's Summer Camp Book There's A Bat In Bunk Five, but I remember reading both of these books around the same time and thinking it was strange/interesting that both feature a jerky character whose problems seems to stem from the fact that her parents are separated/divorced. In Bat, the little bitchlet is named Ginger. Here it's Barbara. And in both books, there's a subplot about said girl running away or disappearing. But in Bat, even though we find out why Ginger acts out, she never really changes, and the book just sort of ends with Ginger being taken away from camp, if I recall correctly. Here, Barbara has a transformation/epiphany and turns out OK in the end. Which I kind of like, and kind of don't. Barbara does certain things in this book that are kind of terrible. One time, when the girls in the cabin are supposed to come up with costumes for a luau, Barbara forces them all to dress like clowns. CLOWNS?! Of course, the rest of the camp is just like, WTF? Another time, she doesn't want there to be a camp dance (which Jessica is secretly trying to arrange) so she threatens to tell the camp director about Grace if Jessica goes through with her plans. 

In the end, though, Barbara saves Grace's life. Then she comes clean about the reasons she was such a bitch, and everybody accepts her. And I get it, and it's sweet, but still. Bite me, Barbara.

Despite Barbara's best meddling, the dance (between this camp and the boyyyys' camp across the lake) actually does end up happening, and the book leaves off on that night/note. Speaking of which, I love how Summer Camp Books always seem to have a camp of the Opposite Sex right across the lake. There has never, in the history of fictional camps, ever been a lake big enough to stop those crazy kids from mingling with The Boys (or The Girls). There will always be a secret pathway around the lake, a canoe, a strong swimmer, or a kid who's clever enough to sneak a ride in the back of a laundry truck.

(Meanwhile, I went to a Christian summer camp which was totally co-ed, although girls weren't allowed down the path to the boys' cabins and vice versa. Still, we played and swam together and everything. Oh well.)

So anyway, yeah, this book actually holds up pretty well. Camp Loconda sounds like fun -- swimming, boating, horseback riding, volleyball, and a treasure hunt that was either very poorly described or ridiculously rigged, I can't decide. Reading this as a kid, I was totally jealous of the cabins in this book, which each had an attached bathroom. No trekking into the woods in the middle of the night to find a loo for these kids, no ma'am! 

Camp Tropes Present Here:

*Overnighter Where Something Surprising Happens
*Sprained Ankle
*Boys Across The Lake!
*Possibly Haunted/Abandoned Cabin
*Bitchy Camper Who Has Her Reasons (Barbara)
*Mean Counselor Who Everyone Hates (Tina)
*Cliche Ghost Stories
*Arts & Crafts Cabin Where Someone Is Making Something Out Of Popsicle Sticks (hey, at least it wasn't lanyards!)
*Co-Ed Dance!
*Movie Night Where The Movie Is Something Pathetically G-Rated (Old Yeller, here)


In the end, I think The Ghost In The Graveyard will go to GoodWill, and The Big Camp Secret will stay on my bookshelf for the time being.

And no, I'm NEVER going to read THAT one!

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