I’ve recently been re-reading the first twenty Sweet Valley High books, which were almost all ghostwritten under Francine Pascal’s aegis, and one of the things I’ve been most struck by is how deeply familiar to me all the plot beats remain after an interlude of at least fifteen years. The morality tales of SVH resemble word problems more than I’d ever remembered, which means I never hated math class half as much as I thought I did: If Liz and Todd are a rock-solid couple who trust one another, but Liz needs to teach the reader about trusting your friends/listening to your heart/giving everyone the benefit of the doubt in every book, then Liz needs to seriously doubt her rock-solid boyfriend at least every book. Her stomach is always sinking as she reassures herself that she can trust Todd, who’s always been there for her – can’t she? Where is Todd, anyhow? Let’s scan the crowd at the Dairi Burger for his missing face, unable to shake the rising sense of panic when his familiar warm brown eyes and chestnut-brown hair don’t turn up? And Todd always has to turn up to provide Liz with a sense of relief, which means he has to go missing at least once a book, either emotionally or physically, which means he has to be the most reliably missing person in all of Sweet Valley. To trust him, you must constantly be in doubt of him.
Todd is reliable, but he’s always missing. No, wait, there he is. Good old reliable Todd. But wait a second – who’s that with him? Oh, good, Todd says she’s just a friend. But she doesn’t look like just a friend – she’s hanging onto the back of his motorcycle as if her life depended on it! No, no, she’s a very lovely girl, who just thinks of Todd as a friend…If you say so, Lizzie.
WHAT’S TODD UP TO?
“Even so, Elizabeth couldn’t shake the worry she felt. What if Todd really was out with Patsy?”
“Why did she turn into a complete idiot the minute Todd was near her?”
“Jessica felt a tiny twinge of panic. Why was Todd ignoring her? Had something happened to the Wakefield magic? Impossible! she told herself. She was still the most fantastic girl in school. So why didn’t Todd know it?”
“Looking back, the last thing Elizabeth saw was Todd Wilkins standing near the front door, looking after them in bewilderment.”
“The words swam about on the paper, blurred by her tears. No matter how hard she tried to concentrate, all she could think about was Todd and the closed expression on his face before he’d walked away.”
“But she knew she had to stop feeling that way. For Todd’s sake. Where was Todd? She didn’t find him on the cafeteria line, nor was he joking around with his basketball buddies on the outdoor patio.”
“It was Todd. And he wasn’t alone.”
“She rushed down the short flight of stairs to the pay phone just outside the women’s lounge. ‘Todd Wilkins, where are you?’”
“‘Todd, tell me now!’ Elizabeth demanded. ‘What have you been doing all night?’”
“‘I think that’s still a few weeks away, Lila. Listen, you haven’t seen Todd around, have you?’
‘Have you tried the lost and found?’ Lila purred. ‘Lay off her, Lila,’ said Cara Walker. ‘I think she’s serious. Is anything wrong, Liz?’
‘I just have to speak to him. Do you have any idea where he might be?’
‘Hey, Liz,’ said Ken Matthews, overhearing the conversation as he passed by the table with his lunch tray. ‘If you’re looking for Todd, you’ll find him in the parking lot with his new toy.’”
“‘Have you seen Todd?’ Patsy asked, seemingly oblivious to Elizabeth’s torture. ‘He said he was going out to get something from his car. I just thought you might have run into him on your way in.’
Elizabeth couldn’t believe it. How could anyone be so insensitive? Tears stung her eyes. It had been a mistake to come here after all. Right now, all she wanted to do was escape.”
“Elizabeth was busy looking for Todd, who had disappeared into the crowd during her showdown with Suzanne, when Enid came rushing up to her.”
“‘Because I believe in him, Jess.’
‘Well, what about Todd?’
‘What about him?’ Elizabeth wondered.”
WHERE IS TODD?
“She followed her sister’s gaze to the track, where Todd was doing warm-ups. Dressed in gym shorts and running shoes, he was obviously going to compete in the trials.”
“Right below her, Elizabeth looked at the field with mixed emotions. Naturally she was rooting for her boyfriend, but it was almost as important to her that Roger place as well. She wasn’t sure why Todd was out there, but of all of them Roger needed the scholarship most. It would be nice, she thought, if he and Todd could tie for first.”
“By the time they had gathered together their towels and suntan lotion, Todd was beeping his horn outside.”
“It was exactly eight. ‘Todd is always at least fifteen minutes late. Lateness is like a religion with him.’”
“‘I can’t, Todd. I just can’t. A promise is a promise.’ Elizabeth stacked the last of the dinner plates in the dishwasher and flicked it on. Two tickets to a Lakers game and she had to be baby-sitting! Oh, well, Todd would just have to understand.”
“In the lunchroom, the guys had been conspicuously absent. Elizabeth had managed to catch Todd as he'd walked through the cafeteria with Ken. She'd pulled him aside and forced him to talk to her for a few minutes.
Todd had been distracted the whole time, shuffling his feet and looking at his watch. Elizabeth had wanted him to talk the guys out of perpetuating the rivalry any further. ‘Just tell them to rise above it,’ she had urged. ‘Violence only leads to more violence.’
But Todd had barely heard her. ‘Liz, I gotta run,’ he'd said, kissing her on the cheek. ‘Guys' meeting.’ Then he had disappeared into the outdoor eating area.”
“Lila was pretty, all right, Elizabeth thought. Pretty enough to tempt even the most faithful of boyfriends. She was rich, too. Though, of course, Todd wouldn’t … would he?
‘I’m not worried,’ Elizabeth lied.”
“‘Thanks,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Listen, have you guys seen Todd?’
They shook their heads. ‘Actually, I haven't seen any of the guys all night,’ Annie replied. ‘Do you think they showed up?’
Elizabeth nodded her head. ‘I wish they hadn't,’ she said, her face grim. ‘Listen, if you see Todd, can you tell him I'm looking for him?’
‘Sure,’ Annie promised.
‘And would you tell him it's . . . important?’”
“‘Hey, Liz, do you want to join us?’ Harry teased.
‘Oh, sorry,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Have you guys seen Todd around?’ Harry shook his head, and Olivia, looking concerned, asked, ‘Is something wrong?’
Elizabeth's expression was grim. ‘I don't know,’ she said.”
“Enid took a sip of her soda. ‘Well, then, we're going to have to sit on someone's lap.’
‘Maybe Todd is here,’ Elizabeth said. ‘He told me he'd save seats for us if he got here in time.’
Enid looked at her in surprise. ‘He must be here,’ she said. ‘This is the most important game of the season.’
‘He's getting his cast off, but he was hoping to make it in time to catch some of the game,’ Elizabeth explained. Todd had broken his ankle during an important basketball game and had been in a walking cast for the last few weeks.”
“‘Go ahead,’ Elizabeth reassured her twin. ‘I've got to meet Todd soon anyway. He's waiting for me in the library.’”
DOES TODD LOOK HAPPY?
“Todd didn't look too pleased about the prospect of starting a fight either. ‘Look, Bruce, calm down a little. The dance just started. Let's just wait and see what happens.’”
“It would be different if I had a boyfriend, she thought fiercely, sneaking an envious glance at Elizabeth and Todd. It's obvious I can't rely on my friends. Elizabeth and Todd were so happy together. Todd seemed to anticipate everything Elizabeth needed. He even got up to get her something to drink! And she could tell they were holding hands under the table.”
“‘Hey, Liz,’ he said after history one morning, ‘how about getting something to eat after school?’
‘I’m busy,’ she snapped, ignoring the hurt look on Todd’s face.’”
“He never called her anymore. They avoided each other in the halls. Still, Todd was being careful not to look at her, and she was being just as careful not to look at him.”
“Todd flashed him a grin and blew Elizabeth a kiss. Even with his shirt stuck to his chest in sweaty patches, Todd looked beautiful to Elizabeth.”
“‘So now I’m an idiot on top of being a cheat? Well, you’re right about one thing,’ she said through clenched teeth. ‘Only an idiot would go out with you!’
Todd looked as if she’d slapped him. ‘I guess that means our date for Saturday is off,’ he said coldly.”
“Todd looked a little flustered as he said, ‘I’m sorry, Liz. I can’t eat with you today. I promised Mandy and Winston I’d meet with them.’”
“Todd looked hard at Elizabeth as he grasped the meaning of her words. ‘Are you trying to tell me you were jealous also?’ Then he smiled as he realized they had been feeling the same way, without being aware of it.”
“Todd looked at her in amazement. She jabbed him lightly in the ribs with her elbow. ‘That’s called laughing through the pain, Todd. I think it’s what you and I are supposed to do at a time like this.’”
“She was gazing up at Todd with an expression that seemed to hint at something far more than friendship. Todd looked pleased by all the attention, as well as faintly embarrassed.”
“Elizabeth looked up at him. Tall and lean, with warm brown eyes, Todd looked especially handsome that night in his gray cords and burgundy shirt. Why did he put up with her?”
“Todd looked especially handsome in a blue pin-striped sport jacket. Too bad she was leaving the next day, she thought. It might have been fun to see what she could do with Todd.”
“Todd looked up from his hamburger. He swallowed and said, ‘That sounds like the opening line of a mystery novel.’ His brown eyes sparkled with mischief.”
“Todd was such a kidder. His sense of humor was one of the things she loved best about him—plus about six feet of muscle topped by wavy brown hair and a brilliant white smile.”
“Todd, a sad, faraway look in his brown eyes, said, ‘Maybe there’s just so much a person can take. I mean, how long can you go on trusting someone, believing in someone?’”
“If possible, Todd was even more attractive than ever that morning, cutting a sexy, self-assured pose astride his shiny black bike. He was wearing a soft leather jacket, which hugged his long, trim body, and a black full-faced helmet, which he now took off to reveal his tousled head of dark brown hair and the biggest smile Elizabeth had seen on his face for ages.”
“Elizabeth looked back at the bike. She wished she could share Todd’s joy, but she couldn’t imagine how he could be relaxed and comfortable and enjoy the view when his life depended on being able to balance five hundred pounds between his legs at fifty-five miles per hour. But there was more to it than that. His choice of color disturbed her as well. Black. The color of death. For a brief second a picture of Rexy flashed across her mind.
Quickly she shook off the thought. There’s no connection, she repeated to herself. What happened to Rexy doesn’t have to happen to Todd.”
Hey, you wouldn’t by any chance have seen Todd around lately, have you? I’m not worried, but I am looking for him. Todd’s not in the gym being six foot tall. Todd’s not smiling reassuringly at a hamburger. Todd’s not my lab partner in the hallways. Todd’s not picking tennis up later with a California-white smile. I’m sure it’s fine. But if you do see him, will you make sure he turns into death on his motorcycle? Todd’s alive, but he’s not here yet. Todd’s hanging in between life and death, but he’s fifteen minutes late. Todd’s on his way to the beach with me and my twin sister, and he doesn’t have to die just because of warm velvet-brown eyes he’s using to trust me. Todd trusts me, but Todd has some questions for me, but Todd’s going to apologize over the phone later. Todd knows he knows me. Todd is practicing layups on a broken ankle, but I can trust him to keep the other guys in line. Todd would never go too far. Todd and I are practically perfect – so why am I so worried? I have to find Todd, my steady boyfriend who’s always disappearing.
My next book, an essay collection about religion and Columbo and transition called Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is available for pre-order at Indiebound and Amazon and I hope you will consider buying it!