...she couldn't see what was so interesting about being Chinese.
If he knew – if he had any idea how restricting some of those traditional values could be –
then he would understand why she wanted to keep it a secret. - p. 33
Before we proceed with our very-irratically-scheduled recap (SORRY EVERYBODY)…
Launch the fireworks! Pop the champagne! WE DID IT! 50 BOOKS!!
Over ten (!!) years after the Diaries’ humble beginnings as an iWeb blog, I’ve finally, FINALLY reached book #50. While #50 is not actually the 50th book I’ve recapped for the site (there have been a few Special Editions and even Thrillers in the mix), it’s still a landmark occasion. And it’s still a pretty sorry book-to-year ratio. Between losing my .com domain to dastardly pirates and heading West to follow my own personal California Dreams (of grad school and a screenwriting career), you may have noticed (if there are still any “yous” out there following along!) that my output has slowed to a near-halt. I hope to pick things up going forward, and even have some exciting new Sweet Valley-related schemes brewing in my special little brain. A passion for these bizarre books still flows rich through my veins, and I have no intention of giving up before the bitter end. As I’ve recently had to inform friends who assume that #50 means “almost done!” there are fucking 181 of these books, and that’s before college even starts, so at this rate, I’ll be finished with the Diaries sometime in the next 30 years. Since it seems that, with every passing year, the 1980s version of teenage perfection seems weirder and weirder, one can only imagine what cartoonish monsters the Wakefields and friends will appear to be come 2047! I for one look forward to that day.
And hey! That’s a reasonable transition into the tricky meat of Book #50, OUT OF REACH. It’s one of very few books in the Sweet Valley compendium that is about a non-white character. And, unfortunately, the entire conflict of the book centers around the fact that its lead, Jade Wu, is not white. That said, Jade Wu’s Chinese-Americanness is handled in a way that is somehow both rife with stereotype and yet bizarrely insightful. I don’t know whether to shame this book or to give it props for holding up a mirror to society.
I think we need to meet Jade Wu.
Jade is a sophomore whose two greatest passions are blending in and dancing. The buzz around Sweet Valley High is that she’s astonishingly talented (at both, but mainly dancing). But no one has ever seen Jade dance outside of her private lessons; her strict (“traditional,” “Chinese”) father doesn’t mind allowing her to go to the lessons, but dancing in private is not the same thing as shamefully shaking your moneymaker for the world to see. There’s the rub: this book’s “big dance” is actually a big talent show fundraiser thing that is going to help the school start a dance program. The centerpiece of the whole show will be a big number featuring a solo dancer, and lots of hopefuls will be auditioning to fill that spot. Ignore the fact that the entire concept of "talent show where the talents are determined before the performers have been chosen" makes almost no sense, or else we won’t be able to proceed.
Jade’s friends encourage her to audition. Jade is thrilled by the opportunity to share her gift with the world (“dancing alone is almost like not dancing at all” she pleads to her mother), but she knows her father will forbid it. And he does. She decides to audition anyway, encouraged by her dance teacher, and when she gets the solo part (incurring the wrath of a scorned Amy Sutton in the process), she begs her mother to intercede with her father on her behalf.
Of course, there’s also a boy.
David Prentiss is an artistic young man who is designing the posters and the sets for the big dance show. He is nursing a giant crush on Jade, and Jade is feeling similar stirrings for him, especially after his love for her shines through in his detailed, not-at-all-creepy drawings of her that will feature prominently on both the poster AND the backdrop of the show set.
She had a feeling her family wasn't going to like this poster. And Jade couldn't help wonder whether she would like it, either. David has said something about her "distinctive features." Was he going to make her look ethnic? Jade worried. She was trying so hard to look just like everyone else! (p. 55)
Yes, you read that right: Jade Wu, and everyone else in the show, will be dancing in front of a gigantic drawing of JADE WU DANCING. It’s pretty meta. This David Prentiss might be brilliant. She dodges David’s suggestions that they spend some solo time together, as her (“traditional,” “Chinese”) parents have forbidden her from dating.
So now Jade is worried that she’s committed to star in a show that her dad will force her to quit, AND that she’s sending no-go vibes to a boy she’s totally into. But Jade can’t TELL David, or nearly anyone else, about her troubles, because she is mortified that her parents are so traditional. She is mortified by everything about her that feels stereotypically Chinese. Now, I’m unfamiliar with a traditional Chinese mandate against dancing in public, and forbidding your 16-year-old to date seems like pretty run-of-the mill, not-affiliated-with-any-nationality, controlling parenting. But Jade’s concern with not seeming like a Chinese stereotype goes way further than her secrets about a strict dad.
Jade’s deepest secret, you see, is that her maternal grandparents own a dry cleaning business.
Oh, Jade. Oh hey, I just realized, that Jade is a little “jaded” about her family background. Also, Jade is a thing from China. This book is so clever.
David pulls away from Jade after she subtly rejects him a few times (again, not because she doesn’t like him, but because she knows she’s not allowed to go on a date with him, though she hasn’t, like, asked her parents permission or anything). Jade decides she’ll endear herself to him by telling him her big secret. Yes, the one about the grandparents and the laundry. I know. The plan backfires. David comes from a working class family and he even has a part-time job to pay the bills. He (from his position of white male privilege, but not of wealth privilege) doesn’t understand how Jade could hold her hardworking grandparents business against them. He doesn’t get that it’s not the “working class” part she’s embarrassed by, it’s the “stereotypical industry” part. He’s a little put off.
In a super special twist of coincidence, that very evening Amy Sutton’s mother decides to try a new dry cleaning place out. She takes Amy along after picking her up from rehearsal. Amy sees a poster for the school’s dance show — the poster where Jade is illustrated front and center — hung up at the laundry and is able to turn down the jealous screaming of her inner voice long enough to hear the woman behind the counter say that her granddaughter is the girl on the poster. Amy thinks this is just delicious. Amy is bitchier than usual in this book, as evidenced by the fact that even Jessica thinks she's being ridiculous.
The next day, Jade arrives to school to find the halls abuzz — abuzz! — with the news that her grandparents own the dry cleaning business on the edge of town. It doesn’t really seem like anyone cares, but they do all seem to be talking about it. Jade is MORTIFIED. She puts the pieces together and realizes (wrongly, obvi) that DAVID TOLD HER SECRET. When she freaks out at him, he’s mad to be falsely accused, but even more angry that Jade cares so much about this secret. Like, seriously sister, what is your damage? He is so angry that he not only QUITS his role as the dance show art director, he also TEARS DOWN his beautiful backdrop of Jade, which is already hanging up on stage.
Jade goes home heartbroken, crying to her mother. But when Mom (Mrs. Wu) finds out what she’s upset about, Mom is PISSED. Her parents, the Sungs, worked their asses off so they could build a life for their family here, and that hard work LITERALLY pays for Jade's dance lessons. Mrs. Wu is incensed; here she is, trying to help convince Mr. Wu to let Jade be in the show, and Jade is going around acting like a little ingrate who's ashamed of her elders. Jade takes a cold hard look at herself. She has a change of heart and apologizes to Mrs. Wu. Mrs. Wu convinces Mr. Wu to let Jade dance. It's great news! Except that, without David involved in the show, Jade doesn't feel much like dancing anymore.
As tempted as I am to roundly lambaste this book for its clunky racism and stereotyping, I have to admit that from my perspective (admittedly, the perspective of a white person who has rarely felt like an outsider because of her race) Jade's fears about being pigeonholed and pre-judged, as well as her desire to be like everyone else, sound like they'd probably resonate with many high schoolers in similar shoes. In those sensitive formative years, the struggle to not be a weirdo is constantly at odds with trying to forge your own identity. Wanting not to seem "exotic" to your peers seems perfectly reasonable, no matter your age; and when you're busy trying to be appreciated for inner charms and talents that have nothing to do with your race, it could totally sting to have people's ignorant, surface-level assumptions about you and your family turn out to be true once in a while.
Anyway, die-hard fans can guess what happens next. Who haven't I mentioned yet in this recap? That's right: Elizabeth Wakefield. As in so many "minor character in the spotlight" volumes before, sensitive, caring, connected, and nosy-as-hell Liz comes to the rescue by sensing that something is wrong, worrying that it's none of her business, and then making it her business anyway.
Liz takes a momentary break from a B-Story jaunt where she and Jess try to help their dad through a midlife crisis by taking him to a metal show at the Beach Disco and making him work out a lot. (It's extremely silly and has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot.) She calls Jade at home (for the first time ever) just to ask how she's feeling about the upcoming show. This is how Jade learns that Amy, not David, spilled the beans about Sung's Laundry being owned by Jade's grandparents. Then Liz talks to David, somehow intuiting that the reason Jade wouldn't go out with David might have something to do with Jade's family.
"Why were you ashamed of them?" Elizabeth asked.
Jade shook her head. "I don't know why. I guess ever since I can remember, I've wanted to be like everyone else. Like you and Jessica," she said admiringly. (p. 119)
These two conversations, of course, fix everything. What's more, Jade finds out that there's going to be a talent scout there, Mr. Wicker, who's looking to choose a recipient of the Amelia Higginson Award, the recipient of which will "dance as an intern with the LA Summer Stock Dance Company." When she arrives to the theater, notices that the backdrop David tore down (and ripped in half!) has been replaced. It looks just the same as before, only now Jade has a triumphant smile on her face! You know what that means: David has worked all week to paint a whole new backdrop, proving his love for Jade after all. Jade blows everyone out of the water with her perfect dancing, and her father (who's been saying all week that he won't attend the show) is there in the audience!
The scout comes backstage after the Wus have congratulated Jade unconditionally, met David, and given him enthusiastic permission to date Jade. In one final twist, Amelia Higginson turns out to be a real racist bitch...
"...from a terribly old, very established family. You know what I mean, don't you?"
Jade just looked at him blankly. "Not really."
"Well..." Mr. Wicker cleared his throat again, then looked around sheepishly. "I was just going to mention something about your name. You see, I think it would be better for all concerned if we presented your name to Miss Higginson as Jade...Warren, instead of Jade Wu...I'm sure you won't object to a tiny little thing like that." (p. 141-142)
Jade, in front of her new boyfriend and her whole family says, "fuck you, dude, I'm not changing my name for you or anybody!" (not in those exact words).
And that's the end. Jade lost the LA Summer Stock gig, but she danced in the show, got the guy, won her father's love, found newfound respect for her roots, and will probably go on to never appear in another Sweet Valley High novel ever again.
I was really prepared to have a lot of vitriol to spew at OUT OF REACH. And certainly there are many moments in it that would make any woke, 21st-century reader cringe. But sometimes the surprise in reading these books isn't at how bad they are, but at their weird moments of insight. I don't know who really wrote this book (we don't know who really wrote any of them) but I'd like to imagine that perhaps it was an Asian-American woman who grew up with these same embarrassments and a sense of awkward outsider status that she was desperate to overcome. Maybe that woman learned to embrace her true self, to find balance between that true self and her roots, and to say fuck the haters. Maybe this book helped other young readers do the same.
I apologize, by the way, for this (inadvertent) bizarre observation of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Not being cheeky here, this was just how the books shook out, but it would be odd not to mention the coincidence in timing. This also seems as good a time as any to mention how befuddling it is to me that any average coastal Californian high school would have only one student of Asian descent. Take the LA Metro area for example: by one recent tally, fully 4% of that population was Chinese-American. And that's JUST Chinese, not factoring in Angelenos of Filipino, Korean, Thai, or Japanese decent. I'm just saying, while Jade Wu would have been one of the only Asian kids in my Midwestern high school, her outsider status in a SoCal beach town feels a little less plausible. But Sweet Valley is like Hollywood: all characters are assumed white unless proven otherwise. (#sickburn)