Two years ago, a care package arrived at my door. It was from my mom, as packages usually are. She has what my sister and I call the “post office gene.” She is genetically programmed to go to the post office and mail things - Post cards, letters, packages of all shapes and sizes… My sister and I did not get the post office gene. We can barely mail a letter even when our mom leaves a pre-addressed, stamped envelope casually on the kitchen table after a visit.
My mom’s packages are always exciting. The box is covered in several dollars’ worth of stamps since she finds that more interesting than just paying to send the box with a generic price sticker. She will often cover the remaining surface space with little sketches or stickers, and even tie long strands of string or ribbon to it for decoration. She goes crazy with the packing tape. It takes industrial strength scissors to open her packages.
Inside the box there is almost always a pair of socks and a random treasure from nature, like a milkweed pod she found to be extraordinary. There is often glitter. Sometimes the glitter is in a little jar for my kids, sometimes it is glued to a pinecone, and once in a while it is just sprinkled throughout the box, like maybe she didn’t even realize how it happened. I love glitter. We share that gene.
Nestled among the socks and nature items is the package surprise, which could be anything from my old high school tennis T-shirts, to a fancy dog harness that will magically train my dog not to pull, to a random cake pan in the shape of a bunny (“For Easter!” says the card, even though it is September).
I admit that sometimes the contents of the package are stored away for the annual Holiday Yankee Swap or sent directly to the dump with a lot of grumbling about the expense it took to send it to us so we could pay even more money to throw it away (couldn’t we just have the money, please?).
But two years ago the care package was filled with a treasure from my childhood. Sweet Valley books.
It’s hard to explain what these books meant to me. When I was 10 years old, away at summer camp, a cabin mate was reading the first in the series, titled “Best Friends.” The book was pink and had a picture of two beautiful girls – identical twins - with long, straight blond hair, blue eyes, and big smiles. I didn’t ask for a turn to read the book as it was passed around my cabin because I was pretty sure those two girls would never want to be friends with me. That was how I often felt at that time in my life – like even characters in a book wouldn’t want to hang out with me. Plus reading was still hard and I was never sure I’d be able to understand a new book. It wasn’t worth the risk of not understanding and feeling like I wasn’t cool enough to relate to the main characters. So I admired the two girls on the cover from afar.
When I got home from camp, I saw the same book in a bookstore. Knowing I could give it a try in the privacy of my room and desperately wanting to read what looked like a cool kid book, I took a chance and begged my mom to buy it. She did.
I read the book easily (#thirdgradereadinglevel) and the girls on the cover didn’t seem to mind my presence at all. Jessica and Elizabeth were pretty wrapped up in their own junior high drama – the school newspaper, ballet, boys... I actually fit right in and sank happily into their world as a way to escape my own.
Sweet Valley books had it all – a reading level I could access, beautiful, fun friends, and never-ending teenage drama that met my own angst quite well. Plus there were hundreds of these books.
November two years ago was the start of a pretty awful time for our country. When the box full of Sweet Valley books arrived, with glitter sprinkled on top, it was the best care package ever. I once again happily sank into the dreamy bliss of my childhood escape.
My oldest daughter, Katherine, was very aware of what I was reading, despite (or because of) my effort to disguise the pretty pink books with kids on the cover and big print inside. She was fascinated and begged me to let her read them.
I had no intention of ever letting her read this horrible, white-washed, 1980s crap where all the characters were white, slim, well-off, and living the American dream in sunny southern California. It was ok for me to read them since they were a comforting relic of my childhood. And I needed it – after all, look who our country had just elected. Yes, I am fully aware of the irony… but the comfort of childhood memories is powerful and I could not resist. But no way would I let my daughter read them. Nothing about the characters or storylines represented the culture I want my children to grow up to value.
“Maybe when you’re twelve…” I responded vaguely to her pleas. At the time, twelve sounded awfully far away, and she’d likely forget.
It only took me a couple of weeks to read them, after which I stored them in a Tupperware bin under my bed with the intention of getting rid of them some point soon (getting to read them again was totally worth the cost of later having to take them to the dump).
But I didn’t get rid of them. Maybe I like that those old friends are there under my bed… just in case I need them again in November 2020.
Well, Katherine turns twelve on Thursday. And today was a snow day. And she left her book at school and has read every other book in the house … except for the Sweet Valley books in the bin under my bed. And she had not forgotten.
“You said when I was twelve, mom, YOU SAID!”
Sigh. What can I say? A kid without a book on a snow day? Begging to read a book I loved at her age? Anyways, what happens on snow days doesn’t really count, right?
I let her read one.
Luckily, Katherine is a far more discerning reader than I was at that age. She read it in about 25 minutes, didn’t like the characters that much, and was generally unimpressed. She put it away and found something else to do.
Maybe one of these days I’ll sell them on Ebay - I think they go for about $1.99 per book, which is probably their original value. Or maybe I’ll ceremoniously take them to the dump in November 2020.