Any woman who was a teenager in 1983 or after can tell you who lived in Sweet Valley: Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, identical twins with shoulder-length blonde hair, blue-green eyes, and perfect size-6 figures. The only way to tell them apart? Elizabeth, the good one, always wore a watch -- Jessica, the Alexis Carrington character, didn't need one, because "nothing really ever started until she got there."
Oh, how times have changed. This fall, Sweet Valley High author Francine Pascal has unveiled a new, far grittier Generation Y series, Fearless, the story of a girl born without the gene for fear. Pocket Books is rolling out one book per month in stores and through the hot teen magalogue Alloy, and a TV series in development will go up against Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Fearless, which hit No. 1 on Barnes and Noble's young-adult list, stars Gaia, who lives on Perry Street, has a crush on an NYU hottie, uses PG-13 language like "bitch" and "shit," and attends "Greenwich Village High" when she's not kicking a lot of bad-guy ass. "The good thing about seventeen," narrates Gaia, "is that you're not sixteen. Sixteen goes with the word sweet, and I am so far from sweet. I've got a black belt in kung fu and I'm trained in karate, judo, jujitsu, and muay thai -- which is basically kick boxing."
"Gaia is strong, and that's the way girls are these days -- like Buffy, who I think is terrific," says the sixtyish Pascal, pushing her Loni Anderson bangs out of her eyes in the Louis XVI sitting room of her West Fifties apartment. It's the home of an obviously successful author (or rather "creator," since Pascal has a staff of writers who crank out Sweet Valleys from her outlines). "In high school, I was Gaia," says Pascal, a lifelong New Yorker and author of several adult books who grew up in Washington Heights and Queens before graduating from NYU. "But I always wished I had had the life of the Wakefield girls. There is something in the twins that just makes every woman in the world relate to Sweet Valley."
In 1985, it was the first young-adult book to make the New York Times paperback best-seller list -- No. 14, right under John Updike and Norman Mailer. The series now comprises 700 volumes. There are 150 million copies in print worldwide, in 25 languages, and two U.S. television series in reruns.
"We'll see how Fearless performs over time -- the market for teen book series is saturated at the moment," says Pascal. "Of course," she adds with a soft laugh, "I'm the one who saturated it."