Sweet Valley High and The Girls of Canby Hall were the two teen novel series I read and re-read from grimly and determinedly in my 80s and early 90s adolescence.
Sweet Valley High, the storied Random House series, featured blonde twins, Elizabeth (the “good” one) and Jessica (the “not-so-good” one) Wakefield, living in the small Southern California town of Sweet Valley. The concept was created by the mysterious Francine Pascal, whose name graced the covers. Beginning in 1983, Pascal oversaw a team of ghostwriters through over 152 books, through prequel and sequel series, and even a television sitcom. But although the franchise has gone through revivals and updates, the original stays in the popular memory. The great Roxane Gay has written about her love for the series, and Pascal herself has occasionally emerged from the south of France LIKE THE GLAMORPUSS WE ALL SUSPECTED SHE WAS to offer new books, such as Sweet Valley Confidential, which chronicles the adult lives of Elizabeth, Jessica, and the Sweet Valley gang.
The Girls of Canby Hall series, published by Scholastic, was less popular and less ubiquitous. (I could find and could read an entire Sweet Valley High while standing in the supermarket while my parents shopped.) Nevertheless, Canby Hall had a healthy run of 35 books starting in 1984, all bearing the author name of the fictional Emily Chase.
Canby Hall followed the lives of three girls attending an exclusive New England boarding school. Roommates (#1) opens with Dana, the big-city girl, enjoying a last run through the through the streets of New York. She zooms past Goldman’s Dry Cleaners, “which was really owned by a Pakistani family,” and asks herself how she’ll survive without the “Mandarin Chinese take-out place.” (I’ve . . . never actually heard the term “Mandarin Chinese” applied to food, but I guess it’s the cuisine of Beijing?) We then meet Faith, who is from a black neighborhood in DC and worries that she’ll be among only white peers. And we finally encounter farm girl Shelley, who has been sent to Canby Hall to expand her horizons—ostensibly beyond her boyfriend Paul. On arrival, however, Shelley finds not just her horizon but her entire world rocked when she discovers she will be rooming with an African American student.
Faith picks up quickly on Shelley’s discomfort and asks what’s wrong, resulting in this:
“Oh no. I don’t know many black people, but” —Shelley thought for a second about how to finish the sentence— “but I’m sure they can be as nice as anyone else.”
She knew the words had come out all wrong as soon as she said them, but it was too late to take them back.
The moment is interesting and familiar, and moreover highlights the fact that race is an important issue in the series. After Shelley, Faith, and Dana graduate, they’re succeeded by Toby and Jane—two white characters—and Andy, an African American student—in Making Friends (#18).
This insistence on centering race is the most significant difference between these two contemporaneous series. Canby Hall deliberately makes an African American girl one of the main characters in a setting—an upper-crust private girls’ boarding school in Massachusetts—that sounds pretty gosh-darn white. The original Sweet Valley High novels, on the other hand, center on white characters in a setting and at a time that could very easily and realistically include, say, characters of Latino or Asian descent—a Southern California public school.
And yes, Sweet Valley does have drop-in characters of color. In Rosa’s Lie (#81), Rose Jameson/Rosa Jimenez attempts to pass as white to pledge a sorority, while in Out of Reach (#50), Jade Wu just wants to dance! But her father is strict! Her father is a doctor and her grandparents run a laundry! Jade will bring dishonor! I’d call it Asian American character bingo, but is it really bingo when you cover all possible spaces? In Sweet Valley, race is the major problem in the books that deal with characters of color. After it’s treated, it goes away. At Canby Hall, awareness of race is something the girls live with, but race is not the only event of their lives.
Let’s take a moment to talk about novel series aimed at girls.
Francine Pascal is a person, but Carolyn Keene, the name on the Nancy Drew books, and Emily Chase are not. Still, whether or not the author credited on the cover is real, often these novels are written by ghostwriters. More precisely, it falls to teams of invisible—often young—women the task of series maintenance, because, I guess, anonymous maintenance is what women do. (One notable writer for Canby Hall was romance legend Julie Garwood, who penned What’s a Girl to Do? [#14].)
Books in these kinds of series can be uneven and sloppy, with terrible, implausible plots. Some are written with flair. Most of them can be very comforting in their familiarity. I can still recite the stock epithets applied to Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield through every book—their blue-green eyes the color of the Pacific, their matching lavalier necklaces, their perfect size-six figures. And because so many books keep coming out, they gave the illusion of letting the characters grow with readers over time. For readers of Canby Hall, that meant growing up with at least one African American character.
Of course, just because Canby Hall acknowledged race didn’t mean it was perfect—far from it.
Tension over Shelley’s racist remark fuels the conflict for the first half of the first Canby Hall book. Dana ends up mad at both parties for making her feel so uncomfortable, to the point where the roommates make that classic move of dividing up their room with masking tape. But the fact that this is a three-way conflict is where Roommates really breaks down for me.
I remember as a kid wondering why Dana didn’t take Faith’s side. After all, big-city Dana has supposedly lived in harmony with all of her fellow creatures across the melanin spectrum. But although she’s annoyed with Shelley, she blames Faith for making things unpleasant—unpleasant for her.
In the book, Dana frames Shelley’s remark as a faux pas. Shelley’s shock, her discomfort, and her actual words really don’t come off that way to me. But let’s go with it as a social misstep: maybe it is a minor blunder—and if so, why doesn’t Shelley apologize? Why doesn’t Dana even attempt to step in with her? It’s pretty easily rectified. But it’s Faith who is taken aside by Dana. Faith is faulted for being Too Angry.
As a kid, I was irritated by Dana’s giving Faith the cold shoulder. But now I realize the doubleness of my reaction, because I’d never have done what Faith did to begin with—I would never have called Shelley out because I knew—I already knew at age twelve—that that would have social consequences. I would have never dared make Dana feel awkward.
Let me emphasize that African American experiences of racism are vastly different from my own experiences as a girl of Asian descent growing up in Canada, but this one moment in Roommates bore similarities to my experiences at that time, and later in life.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially because my re-reading of the first Canby Hall novel took place at about the same time that this excellent piece by my editor, Nicole Chung at The Toast, came out. In “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism,” Chung describes her reactions at a dinner she attended where a woman remarked that Chung, who is of Korean descent, looked like the entire cast—the entire Asian American, male and female, child and adult, cast—of the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.
Chung describes her indecision—her desire to issue a crushing retort warring with her fear of making the rest of the people at the dinner uncomfortable, and her sadness that no one else says anything. In this, as in the fictional incident described in Roommates, the onus seems to be on the person of color—the person who’s just been insulted!—to smooth things over, to make it right. Faith doesn’t smooth things over—not at for a long time. In fact, in the first half of Roommates, she gets in some good zingers.
For instance, in a getting-to-know-you chat, the new roommates end up talking about Norman Rockwell. Shelley starts raving about his work, saying, “His paintings are so true.”
“Not my truth,” Faith retorts.
As a kid, I barely knew who this Rockwell guy was. (I’m Canadian, okay?) Reading this exchange as an adult, I am simultaneously delighted by Faith’s answer—It’s just like Twitter!—and dismayed by the fact that Shelley’s love of Norman Rockwell seems implausible for a fifteen-year-old girl.
Re-reading as an adult is a funny thing. Sweet Valley High #1, Double Love, really is terrible. Roommates has great lines.
As an adult, I also can finally figure out that writer Emily Chase of the Canby Hall series is not real. I know that the books were conceived in a New York publishing house and kept up by a troop of young New York women. That most likely, the character they had the most in common with—the character that comes off best in the series—is Dana, the white New Yorker running through the streets of Manhattan, past the Pakistani dry cleaners and a Chinese takeout place. That the writer was probably someone who told herself that because she shared a city with people who were not white, she was cool with the whole race thing.
Reading this with mature eyes, I enjoy having it confirmed that Shelley is indeed, the very worst.
And I recognize now that Faith gets a slapped with an Angry Black Woman label, but that my opinion still stands: her moment of anger is entirely justified. I don’t like what happens to her in the first half of this book, but there will be other novels. Because this is a series, we get to see Faith as far more: she gets to be practical, cool, and funny. She becomes a photographer for the school newspaper. She gets a boyfriend who she worries about because he wants to be a cop. She goes to college. She has a story.
I’m glad that young me got to grow up with Faith, but I wish she’d had a more sympathetic writer—nowadays, these books would not be enough. Even if I don’t like the outcome of this particular episode—even if I don’t like the frame—I can acknowledge that much of it is true to life.
Top photo by elen aivali on Unsplash