Title: Jessica Takes Charge
Tagline: Big problems come in small packages! [Wing: Well, Jessica is a perfect size … four? six? … and a ball of murder and mayhem, so yes, yes they do.]
Summary: Identical twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield are about to say good-bye to sixth grade—forever! But it’s not over yet…
Jessica and her friends are psyched to spend one of their last weeks as sixth graders working at the mayor’s special Outreach Fair. But volunteering isn’t as easy as it looks.
Lila Fowler thinks a job at the mayor’s office will be glamorous—little does she know! Jessica can’t wait to teach health classes to a group of first graders… until those adorable kids turn into monsters! And Elizabeth, busy at work in a soup kitchen, stumbles upon a mystery!
Can the SVMS volunteers pull it all together before everything falls apart?
This is Sweet Valley, so no, they can’t pull it together before everything falls apart — though the Wakefields are involved and we all know that Wakefields must win, so … yeah. I’m sure the WMW part will prevail.
I actually am sad that we’re coming to the end of recapping Sweet Valley Twins, but sometimes I’m ready for it to be done. Today is one of those days, and of course today is the day I’m trying to knock out this recap. I’ll try not to automatically be negative about everything just because at this moment I’d like to be done.
Note from the future: What the fuck is that title on about? [Raven: I came here to say exactly this.] [Dove: Ditto. They really are phoning it in by now.]
We open with Jessica and Lila snarking together about an assembly, and I immediately want this entire book to be about them teasing each other in friendly ways. Maybe even fun competition as long as they’re not terrible to each other. Am I pretty sure Jessica will be terrible to Lila? After the last book, yes, I am. [Raven: I am SO OVER these two having to learn this friendship lesson every damn book.] [Dove: Stick ’em in front of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. They love TV.]
And pretty much immediately it turns on Jessica envying Lila’s money because she bought a silver bracelet with two hearts and little diamonds; they both saw it at the mall but only Lila was able to afford it. Jessica manages to bite back rude comments — and she actually acknowledges them as rude — but that doesn’t make her feel any better.
The assembly isn’t much of a distraction, either. Mr Clark, the principal, drones on about the importance of volunteer work (which is important! But obviously Jessica’s not going to care much about that), and Jessica keeps gazing at the bracelet, thinking about how pretty it is and how much prettier it would look on her wrist rather than Lila’s.
Jessica’s about twenty heartbeats from removing your hand, Lila. You might want to consider sitting somewhere else. Or don’t, a maiming would really liven up the place.
Mr Clark and the rest of the faculty have added a brand new requirement for all sixth-grade students. You know, the students who are about to leave the sixth grade but now have a surprise hoop to jump through. Do I think students benefit from volunteering? Yes. Should the school be able to add another requirement at the last second? Oh hell no. Fuck out of here, Sweet Valley. As usual, your adults, particularly your school admin and faculty, are full of shit. [Dove: Argh, this annoyed me. Also, we’re like two weeks away from graduating – a couple of books ago, there was talk of a graduation picnic, so it’s not just meta knowledge that we’re near the end of the series I’m using here. This is terribly planned. I’m starting to think that Sweet Valley is a novelisation of The Sims. You know how their wants just suddenly pop up and without warning. Two seconds ago they didn’t even know an Electro-Dance-Sphere existed, and now they’ve got all these wants to own one, use one, and enter an Electro-Dance-Sphere competition? Yeah. That’s every character in Sweet Valley. Particularly the ones in authority.]
Lila is all in on the volunteering, apparently, because Johnny Buck volunteers in cancer wards and Louisa Roberti the fashion designer volunteers by hosting glamorous parties for — something Jessica can’t remember but the fashion sure was great.
This makes Jessica think volunteering might just be glamorous. Hold that thought, kid.
Mayor Flynn has asked for help with her new pet project, Outreach Project; the city council funds things like a soup kitchen, day care center, homeless shelter, health trailer, etc., and they need help. None of those things sound as glamorous to Jessica as the fundraisers the stars put on. Told you so, kid.
Students will spend the next week volunteering for two hours after school each day and there will be less homework assigned. At least there’s that. On Friday, there will be a big Outreach Fair for the organisations to present what they do to the public, and the students will stay until 8 p.m. for that volunteering. [Raven: So all you parents who had plans with your kids for their after-school time? You can get to hot fuck. Get back in your boxes, you pricks, the Teaching Staff have Spoken.] [Dove: All the parents who work different hours and rely on their middle school age kids to babysit? Yeah, they can get to fuck as well. Ditto anyone who relies on a very standard schedule of their day, such as we eat at these times, we do this afterwards, for whatever reasons, yep, they’re screwed too. Also, can the school force kids to give up their free time? I think volunteering is obviously a good thing, but there are plenty of reasons why some people wouldn’t be available starting tomorrow.]
You know, giving us such a specific time had better mean Jessica will have a reason to bounce early and get herself into trouble because of it or what’s the point?
They’re not going to get to choose their own assignments, of course, they will be distributed at random. This is actually a great idea, though of course Jessica and Lila are horrified, but I do feel for people who will end up working with people who won’t take it seriously, people who are stuck without their friends, etc.
Jessica groaned. Her body sagged forward, and she rested her head against the seat in front of hers. She had plenty of questions, all right. Like, “Isn’t it unconstitutional to assign us a job?” And, “How come I can’t work with Louisa Roberti and Johnny Buck?”
But she decided she’d better not ask any of them.
I love you, Jessica.
They get their assignments as they leave for lunch, and we check in with Elizabeth and friends. (Elizabeth is wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt Aunt Nancy sent her from San Diego last year as a birthday present. I’m betting that’s not what actually happened, but I rely on Dove for the details, if there are any.) [Dove: Cannot disprove. We’ve had a zillion Christmases but no birthdays. The only thing I can confirm is that Elizabeth did not get a puppy for her birthday. That said, Aunt Nancy might have been in France during that time – she’s Robin’s aunt, and remember in Jessica’s Secret, they’d just come back from a year in France. So, actually, DISPROVED. Aunt Nancy might have sent her that multicoloured monstrocity, but she sent it from France, not San Diego.]
Maria wants the soup kitchen, Ken shouts happily about getting the day care center [Raven: Because he gets to work with people his own size.], Elizabeth does not want to work in the mayor’s office shuffling papers, this was totally useful. Maria’s excitement over volunteering was adorable, though, as was Elizabeth grabbing her hand eagerly. Elizabeth’s being thrilled to volunteer would be cute, too, except that it is Elizabeth and I’m low level annoyed with her for most books.
Lila got homeless shelter and she immediately refuses to do it [Dove: SHE ALREADY DONTATES THERE REGULARLY. SHE HAS EVEN VOLUNTEERED. FFS.], there’s no law she has to obey the principal, she’ll just make a copy of Jessica’s card and no one will know the difference. (Lila’s wearing black braided sandals. Not sure why the fashion bits are just dropped in willy-nilly, but I’m going to do the same in the recap. You’re welcome.)
When Jessica questions whether they wouldn’t just notice the card was a copy, Lila brags that their copy machine at home cost over eight thousand dollars and has 300 different kinds of paper. I am dying at this exaggeration. At least I hope it is, not even for the price, really, though that’s ridiculous for something at home even then, but mostly because there is no way the Fowlers would need 300 different kinds of paper to run through a machine no matter what.
Jessica does agree to allow Lila to copy it, and they’re both disappointed when she gets the health trailer.
Jessica twisted her hands together. The health trailer. Great. Just great. There she’d be, dancing around with a gigantic thermometer in front of an audience of two-year-olds, singing, “Take your temperature, when you’re sick-ature,” or something totally stupid like that.
Snarky Jessica is one of the best Jessicas.
Maria does get the soup kitchen, but Elizabeth is stuck with the mayor’s office. Now any other time, this would be the perfect chance for twin magic, or hell, no one seemed to make a list of who received what assignment, they wouldn’t even have to pretend to be each other. Somehow, this isn’t going to happen, at least per the summary. All those other times they happily switched places mean nothing, apparently.
Elizabeth and Jessica start talking about their assignments; just as Jessica asks for them to trade (as she should!), Lila comes up furious that she paid Winston $7 for his card (up from $4 when he first offered it to Jessica; Winston’s got this whole commerce thing down) because he promised she would like it, but she’s ended up at the soup kitchen. [Raven: I like that Winston mentions later that he made a fuckton of cash by simply selling his card to anyone who’d buy it, as he didn’t care where he’d be volunteering.]
Lila figures out that Elizabeth must have the mayor’s office, and she and Jessica immediately start trying to outbid each other:
Jessica: will make her bed every day for a week (I have never seen the point of making the bed every day)
Lila: will give her the soup kitchen card (duh, Lila) and let her ride in the limo to the park on Monday (you really know nothing about Elizabeth)
Jessica: make that two weeks on the bed
Lila: limo Monday through Friday and Saturday morning — she’d give Saturday afternoon, too, but that’s Richard’s time off (one whole entire afternoon? Damn) [Dove: Richard? Was living at the homeless shelter that Lila wants nothing to do with. Does nobody remember the greatest book in this main series? *shakes head dolefully*]
Jessica: two weeks on the bed, doing her English homework for a week (Elizabeth: why the fuck would I want you to do that!)
Jessica: NEVERMIND, two weeks on the bed, three make-up lessons, popcorn the next time they go to the movies together
Lila: party at the mansion
Elizabeth: STOP BACK OFF STOP TOUCHING ME
I actually feel for Elizabeth here, Jessica and Lila are not only desperately trying to one-up each other but they are crowded right up on Elizabeth.
Jessica: Elizabeth can wear any of Jessica’s clothes without asking (you mean like you do her clothes? and also wouldn’t a solid chunk of your closet consist of her clothes in the first place) plus three make-up lessons plus making the bed for two weeks plus paying for popcorn the next two times
Lila: limo Monday through Friday and Saturday morning and $200.
Well goddamn, Lila. I’m amazed it took you this long to offer cold, hard cash. [Raven: I did enjoy this oneupmanship. And Lila just wins.]
Elizabeth is tempted by the money, there are many things she wants to buy (rocks and minerals included, which is a shocking bit of continuity), but decides it won’t be right to accept money for it. Lila’s sharp, though, and immediately offers to make it a donation to the soup kitchen if they switch cards.
And Elizabeth accepts it.
Now this is interesting. Elizabeth wants something good for the soup kitchen, understandably, and money helps a lot, but she’s also the one who is so het up over following school rules most of the time and how things aren’t fair, etc., but she’s totally fine with taking the money as a donation (and taking the limo for the week, though I have my doubts that will actually occur). Elizabeth can be bought, though. Bribery works. Lila’s been proven correct that she can get whatever she wants if she throws enough money at it, and Jessica is now desperate to be able to do the same thing.
Jessica’s going to wear Lila’s skin soon.
Oh damn, Lila actually does give Elizabeth a ride to their volunteer jobs Monday afternoon. Elizabeth had forgotten all about the limo, but then Lila picked her up. Elizabeth thought she should enjoy riding in style, but she feels sloppy next to Lila and also they don’t have much in common.
Now wait just a minute, Elizabeth, you go on and on (or at least we’re told you do) that the Unicorns are shallow for caring about how they look but you’re doing the same damn thing. [Dove: Also, Lila may still be under the impression that Elizabeth loves her “like a sister“, after the lying debacle.]
Once she’s alone, Lila practices expressions that she can use in the office, trying to find just the right one, and it is kind of adorable.
Lila checked her expression. Which look would be the most glamorous? she wondered. She glanced at herself in the rearview mirror and narrowed her eyes and raised her chin making her look a lot like an actress she’d seen in a movie once. No—too unfriendly. Quickly she switched to a broad grin, her eyes as wide open as she could make them. Hmmm. Better, but still not quite right. Frowning, Lila concentrated on her reflection. Maybe if she gave a Mona Lisa kind of smile—
She also pronounces Richard’s name as “Rich-ahd” with the faintest touch of an English accent and I am dying over the pretension and how horrible she likely sounds. (She wishes his name was Dmitri so it would be more exotic than plain old Richard.)
She then goes on to “burble” at him and pronounces kind as “kye-und”; she loves the voice she’s using. I am snorting with laughter. Rich-ahd asks if she needs some water because it sounds like she has something stuck in her throat.
So much for that.
Elizabeth settles in at the soup kitchen working with Andre who is doing the cooking along with Mrs Tonney and her grandson Jeff, who is with her because his parents have the flu. Yes, that sounds like a solid plan, send a kid who has been exposed to the flu to hang out in a kitchen and infect people who likely don’t have access to healthcare. Excellent decision making in Sweet Valley. [Dove: I was, unsurprisingly, furious about that. Shocker.]
Sweet Valley Mask Mandate: Non-existent or simply unenforced? [Raven: Now that’d be a story… Liz trying to enforce mask awareness while the Unicorns refuse to wear them. Then Johnny Buck wears one, and the Unicorns all sport matching purple masks at all times. Steven dies of COVID and no one gives a shit.] [Dove: Exactly as Raven called it. I want to say something insightful, but I got nothing. Oh, and Melissa and Andy McCormick’s dad goes bankrupt because nobody’s hiring half-assed musicians during a pandemic.]
Elizabeth gets interrupted before she can give them the donation money, and I am not looking forward to the mystery being what happened to the money. It’s already very contrived.
Jessica is not having a good time at the health trailer, in part because she’s just not a fan of doing things like putting together a working model of the heart and lungs (which sounds like an amazing project A WORKING MODEL) and in part because she’s paired up with Winston. I know we like him at least some of the time, but he was obnoxious earlier and so I’m disappointed that we’ll see more of him now.
Jessica’s also having a hard time with her supervisor, Nurse Jennings, who doesn’t think she’s working hard enough and is disappointed that she doesn’t put together the model quick enough. Oh fuck off, Jennings. Not everyone is good with puzzles. [Dove: Also, that model is delightfully confusing. The small asides throughout the book of instructions that have obviously been translated with technology, not humans, and Jessica’s frustrating and internal responses are the one shining light in this book.]
Lila settles on using her businesswoman voice that basically means she’s imitating her father. Oh boy, I bet that’s going to go over well. The woman Lila thinks is the receptionist, Ashlee, pretty much ignores her because she’s so busy answering the phone and Lila is unimpressed and frustrated enough that she uses her father’s name trying to intimidate:
Lila clenched her fists so hard, her nails dug into her palms. “I am Lila Fowler, daughter of George Fowler of Fowler Enterprises,” she snapped. “I’m volunteering at the mayor’s office, and I demand to speak to someone who knows what they’re doing.” She leaned against the desk and stared Ashlee directly in the eye.
Lila fucking Fowler, everyone. I love her.
Ashlee is, of course, the one who knows what they’re doing. She’s the office manager, and she’s spunky as hell.
“That,” Ashlee said, folding her arms and staring just as hard back at Lila, “would be me. Ashlee, also known as the office manager.” She narrowed her eyes. “Let’s get one thing straight, O Daughter of Fowler Enterprises. I didn’t ask for a volunteer. And let’s get another thing straight,” she continued as Lila opened her mouth to complain. “Volunteers work under me. Got it? Good. Understand that and we’ll get along real well.”
O DAUGHTER OF FOWLER ENTERPRISES.
(I laughed hard enough that I’m going to ignore that her next line talks about people sending her all the crazies. Fuck out of here.)
Lila’s first task is to fold a bunch of brochures (Again Ashlee with the snark: “Brochures,” she said casually, yanking open the top drawer. “‘A Walking Tour of Sweet Valley.’ ‘A Taste of Sweet Valley.’ ‘Beautiful Downtown Sweet Valley, CA.’ ‘The Insect Life of Sweet Valley—Everything but the Tsetse Fly.’ Well, I made that last one up,” she admitted), which is nothing at all similar to what Lila anticipated. Shocking, I know.
Elizabeth is shocked by how much food is in the kitchen, boxes and boxes and boxes (30 boxes of spaghetti alone), and she guesses that all the food will last a month, at least. Then six days, surely.
One day. If they’re lucky. Otherwise, they’ll be turning people away.
Elizabeth is shocked that there are so many needy people in Sweet Valley. Needy people is one way to phrase it, I guess, though put like that generally reads less as people in need of help and more as people who demand things be given to them, but okay. Also, maybe get out of your goddamn bubble, Wakefield. [Raven: Her singling out the downtrodden man in a nice suit as someone she deemed likely unworthy of help felt pretty uncomfortable.]
(Honestly, I’m surprised Sweet Valley hasn’t driven out anyone who earns below a certain amount, and that certain amount is likely more than I personally earn now.)
Apparently they serve 275 people on average every day, and the record is 400 people. Elizabeth feels overwhelmed by that number, and though I was judging her naivety about thirty seconds ago, I’ll give this one to her.
(There are fewer than 275 sixth graders at SVMS, apparently, which surprises me. I grew up in a small town and my graduating class was around 300. Sweet Valley doesn’t seem to have many alternatives [Big Mesa is not a Sweet Valley school, is my understanding], so I’d expect more people in each class.) [Dove: I worked on the logic of my own school, which was roughly 30 people to a class, six classes per year, to 180 per year. No reason for it at all, but Sweet Valley seems like quite a small place. Not quite as small as my primary school, which had about 14 people per year.]
Jessica continues to struggle with the heart and lung model. Winston’s spending his time hanging posters with ridiculous things on them (latest: SuperVeggieMan!, a cartoon head of lettuce with bean sprout hair on an eggplant body, surrounded by 30 cartoon fruits and vegetables) [Dove: This part caused me to send the eggplant emoji (with context) to JC of OGWhyNostalgia. We then cringed.]. Jessica likes fruits and veggies, she swears, or at least some of them, but the poster is babyish and no one could possibly want to eat eggplants or sprouts when they could have a candy bar instead.
That reminds her she has a caramel and chocolate candy bar in her purse and so she takes a break. That is a delicious combination. I approve.
Winston gets her into trouble with Nurse Jennings for (a) having a treat that she won’t share and (b) having a candy bar. It’s apparently a Galaxy bar, which is sold in the USA as a Dove bar. Not the chocolate + caramel candy bar I pictured. (My first thought was the Cadbury Caramello and my second thought was a Snickers.) [Raven: In the UK they are Galaxy Bars, and you can get Galaxy Caramel, which AM-AY-ZING.]
Nurse Jennings orders her to throw out the rest of the candy bar so they don’t corrupt the children. Waste of food and judgmental, unhealthy view of food as good or bad. Great times, this. [Raven: She’s channelling the babysitter from The Big Party Weekend.]
Nurse Jennings does think it is a good time for a snack and gives Jessica a small, greenish banana and a container of skim milk. That banana doesn’t sound ripe yet. Winston brags that he had 6 bananas that morning. Can you overdose on potassium? (Yes, but not from bananas, you’d need to eat something like 400 a day.) [Raven: Peter Andre famously had a bad reaction when ODing on bananas. Also, I’ve not linked to THIS for a good while…]
[Dove: Is anyone else pissed off with what a tool Winston is being? He’s just twatting about and tattling to Nurse Jennings. And, even though I’m still pissed off about what she did to Lila in the last book, I would say that Jessica did not deserve that. Not from him, at least.]
Lila hates her job at the mayor’s office; she’s not seen a single photographer, much less the mayor. This cannot possibly be what she has to do every day.
Finally a good distraction comes in, a cute high school age boy named Paul. Lila knows he’s way too old for her (well, she’s a step up on Jessica when it comes to that!), but he is handsome with his short wavy brown hair and hazel eyes, his muscular shoulders, his green flannel shirt and jeans.
Okay, honestly, he does sound like he could be pretty hot.
His smile flusters her (adorable) and she ends up opening too many drawers and basically pulling the cabinet down on top of her. (That’s actually a common issue with filing cabinets, if you open too many drawers at the same time, they unbalance, which seems like a design flaw and yet I see pretty often. [Dove: *blinks* Uh, over here, pretty much since the dawn of time, you can only buy cabinets that allow one drawer open at once for this very reason. I guess the USA likes to live dangerously.] [Wing: We do what we want. Apparently.] ) Paul saves her, and Lila thinks working at the mayor’s office might not be so bad if he’ll be around.
Nurse Jennings complains about Jessica’s job on the heart and lungs model. It’s missing one of the balloons that stand in for the ventricles, and Jennings demands that she find it. Jessica’s struggling with a leg gone to sleep, and Jennings snarks at her that the exercise will do her good anyway. They let you around children, Jennings? Damn. [Raven: They let Mr Nydick around children, so all bets are off.] [Wing: That is true.]
Elizabeth and Mrs Tooney talk about some of the people, how they don’t always look like the stereotypical image of poor people, about how different people have different reasons to be there. Elizabeth struggles to understand this, but in the end thinks she has a better idea of it than before and continues to help people. [Dove: I found this kind of… I don’t know. Uncomfortable. Liz sees a presentable looking man and wonders if he really needs their help. It kind of had that vibe of “Nobody gets a safe space because someone might pretend to need a safe space just to hurt people already in there” (translate that to any particular issue that resonates). I get the it was a teaching moment, but it was just uncomfortable to read that in a book. Maybe rightly so. I guess my discomfort comes from so many people holding that kind of view – we need to gatekeep necessities – and the fact that the “good” twin needed to be talked out of it was more depressing than enlightening.] [Wing: We need to gatekeep necessities for fear of someone abusing the system is an excellent way to put it and an argument I hear daily as to why we shouldn’t provide healthcare to people, housing, educational support, whatever. This is why I think humanity needs to be done. Let nature try again. (Yes, I know, plenty of people are wonderful and giving, I’m just in a bad headspace where I want to burn it all down.)]
Lila shows up at the health trailer, brags about how great things are at the mayor’s office (lying about everything but adorable Paul). Jessica tells her that Paul, in high school, is far too old for Lila, which is fucking rich coming from Jessica Wakefield. Lila’s unperturbed; she’ll just stay in touch with him until she’s in high school. At which point he will likely have graduated, but okay, rock out yourself. (He might still be there by the time they reach ninth grade; if he’s in ninth grade himself while they are in sixth, he’ll be in twelfth grade when they are in ninth, i.e., he’ll be a senior, in his last year of high school, while they are freshmen, in their first.)
Jessica finds the missing balloon while Lila babbles at her; Lila’s there to talk to Nurse Jennings about a photoshoot with the mayor the next day. She wants the model to be absolutely perfect and continues to criticise Jessica’s work on it (now the lungs are backward). Nurse Jennings of course loves Lila with all her competence and politeness. Oh, good, more jackassery from an adult in charge.
Lila rides home in the limo; they pass Jessica, marching angrily down the sidewalk. Lila considers offering her a ride, but decides that traffic is too heavy and she’ll do it another time. Oh, Lila, you are a mess. [Raven: It’s been over a hundred books, girls. YOU’VE LEARNED THIS LESSON BEFORE.]
Elizabeth tells Alice and Ned about how much she loved working at the soup kitchen, Steven teases her, Jessica scowls and is furious at Elizabeth for selling the spot at the mayor’s office to Lila.
And then Jessica pulls that same old bullshit that people actually still believe:
Jessica forced the beans down her throat. “They’re all mental cases anyway,” she snapped. “People who go to soup kitchens are nuts—everybody knows that.”
Fuck. You. Wakefield. [Dove: First of all, fuck you Jessica. Second of all, why are they acting like this is a brand new thing they’ve never been exposed to? Lila invited everyone at the homeless shelter to the Founding Fling, and Jessica learned in the previous book that the women from the women’s shelter were perfectly normal human beings. I mean, she was also a toxic harpy in the last book, so maybe she wasn’t in full learn mode. Sigh.]
Dinner continues to be awkward, Jessica continues to be grumpy, Elizabeth continues to go on and on about how she feels and how everyone should work at a soup kitchen, until Elizabeth finally remembers that she forgot to give Andre the money earlier.
She’s distracted from that again when Jessica tells her that she’s mad at her because Elizabeth let Lila buy her loyalty. Lila always gets what she wants. Elizabeth does feel guilty about it then, she doesn’t want Jessica to think money can buy anything (too late, and also obviously it can when it comes to you), and she apologises. Jessica softens towards her then and they go to sleep less unhappy.
Elizabeth does, however, now think the money has become a pain.
God, this already feels repetitive and we’re only one day into volunteering. I have to speed this up somehow.
- Day Two
- Lila teases Jessica about how much better her job at the mayor’s office is than Jessica’s job at the health trailer. Lila tries to flirt with Paul, who calls her File Cabinet Girl. Okay, that’s adorable. He gushes on and on about how much he likes working at the mayor’s office. He’s even excited to go to the photo shoot at the health trailer; Lila’s not on the list to go with the people from the mayor’s office, but he offers to try to get her in, too. (Part of why he wants to go is because his grandfather who lives with them has had stomach trouble lately and Paul’s hoping to learn something to help him eat right and take care of himself better.) When Lila and Paul show up at the health trailer with the mayor, it is busier than ever; Paul points out the people in charge of the other service centres (Andre, soup kitchen; Alana, clothes; Jill, blood drives). Paul tells Lila that he wants to be a painting contractor when he finishes school but if that doesn’t work out, he might become a politician. Jessica comes up and tells Lila to be careful around Paul but won’t tell her why, just continues to try to act mysterious. The camera crew get shots of the mayor, everything’s very chaotic, and then a bunch of little kids show up from the day care center. When the mayor learns that one of the volunteers will be giving the presentation to the little kids, they decide to stay and record in order to show how important the Outreach Project is to Sweet Valley. Oh, I’m sure this will go well. Paul is charmed by the kids during the presentation, Lila finds them disgusting (and they kind of are) but doesn’t want to disagree with Paul because of course not, how dare you be your own person. [Raven: The whole political angle in this book is weird. I’m not disliking it, mind… it just feels out of sync with the series.] [Dove: Also, the mayor was a dude. When Lila met him. When he attended her Founding Fling. There could have been a reelection, or it could be the same person using their preferred pronouns, but it’s Sweet Valley, so you know it’s just an error.]
- Elizabeth goes to a jumble sale with Mrs Tooney, who is going to drop Jeff at the day care for awhile. Jeff continues to hang out with them, though, while Mrs Tooney prices things for the jumble sale and talks about the importance of raising money for social services (soup kitchen, day care, etc.). Jeff throws a tantrum over a doll he wants, Elizabeth doesn’t feel comfortable pricing things on her own (and I don’t blame her, that can be stressful, and it’s not like she knows the value of anything anyway), and so Mrs Tooney and Jeff stick around awhile longer. This proves to be a good idea because Elizabeth struggles with understanding that just because she doesn’t like something doesn’t mean someone else won’t and vice versa. Mrs Tooney tells her to remember that the things she likes should probably have lower prices than she thinks and the things she hates should have higher ones. Which is probably a good rule of thumb. Mrs Tooney finds a cookie jar the same as the one she inherited from her grandmother and talks about how, after the 1929 depression, her grandmother never trusted banks and kept all her money in cash in the cookie jar. Mrs Tooney herself still keeps cash in the cookie jar, not all her savings, but just loose stuff for cab fare, etc. Jeff even tried to get a cookie the other day and found money instead; she told him that grandmothers keep money in cookie jars and cookies in the bank. Gee, I wonder where this is going. Elizabeth finally finds Andre and hands over the money, saying it’s from an anonymous donor. He’s grateful and runs off to the health trailer still clutching the money. Elizabeth is filled with pride over this moment.
- Jessica continues to struggle with the model while Winston sorts out merchandise for the jumble sale. People from the mayor’s office arrive to prep for the photo op. Jessica tries to talk to them, but they dismiss her and conveniently keep talking around her so she can overhear them talking about Paul Kindon who is one of the “high school delinquents” who are being turned around by the volunteer opportunities. He got caught spray painting “Jazz Rules!” on the overpass near the golf course. (JAZZ. RULES. HE SPRAY PAINTED JAZZ. RULES. OH THIS RUFFIAN. [Raven: Absolutely howling. I mean, I wasn’t expecting “NYDICK = PAEDO” but JAZZ RULES?! Amazing.]) Apparently he stole the spray paint, a dozen flannel shirts, and extremely valuable earrings from the mall. There was also some sort of incident in the school cafeteria that is too terrible for them to even discuss. Good lord. Jessica is, of course, thrilled that she now knows things about Paul that Lila doesn’t and can’t wait to rub it in her face. I’m thrilled. When Nurse Jennings returns, she congratulates Jessica on her work on the model and tells her to prepare a speech for the day care group about how their blood circulates. What the ever loving fuck. First, you probably shouldn’t leave that to a volunteer without having her practice it with you at the very least. Second, that is not something she should be learning about 15 minutes before the kids rock up. God, you suck, Jennings. [Dove: Chance card, like in The Sims? Jessica is told that in 15 minutes she has to give a presentation on the heart. Should she a) cram as much info as she can in; or b) wing it with a smile and maybe a song? — either option generates a fail.] When it’s finally time and the mayor and team are staying, Jessica is even more nervous. Of course she is, and I feel for her. And what happens is adorable and ridiculous and obnoxious and kind of I love it? I’m not sure how the hell that happened. I’ll share bits of it, though:
Jessica decided she’d better say something fast. “Hi, kids,” she said, grinning the goofiest grin she’d ever grinned. “Today we’re going to learn about something totally awesome—the cardiovascular system! Yay!” She clapped a few times, feeling truly ridiculous, but a couple of kids joined in. Her mind raced. “Can you say ‘cardiovascular system’?”
“Carliamunkalunk thigpen,” a little boy with green tennis shoes responded.
“I have an aunt who lives in Valaska,” a girl said, sitting up straight and twirling her hair. “She says it’s cold there.”
Jessica could feel her audience slipping away. “No, no, this is the heart,” she said faintly, touching the balloons. “At least, it’s supposed to be the heart. And these are the lungs. Do you know what you do with your lungs?”
“Is it like your tongues?” a girl suggested.
“I have a tongue,” a boy announced. “Wanna see?” He stuck his tongue out as far as it would go and pulled on it.
“My mommy said some people eat tongues,” a girl near Mandy said, a look of utter disgust on her face. “They cook them in butter and swallow them whole, and then the tongues go down to their stomachs till they have to barf.”
- Your mommy is correct, child, some people eat tongues and they are delicious. Things go downhill really, really fast, of course (yes, even more downhill than children talking about eating tongues while on camera, and I love that), and Nurse Jennings gets impatient, but Jessica does continue to keep the children’s interest, more or less, and delight them. Then one of the kids tries to pop one of the balloons and instead knocks it loose and when Jessica tries to grab it, she slams into a filing cabinet instead. Then she knocks several hundred “You and Your Colon” brochures off the top. The kids adore this, of course, and throw them into the air and try to make paper airplanes and are just generally strange little kids as kids that age always seem to be. Jessica sees Paul find a brochure on the floor, open it and smile, then shove it into his pocket. Welp, there we go. Later, Winston is giving Jessica shit over the brochures going flying, and he apparently thinks the colon is the thing hanging down in the back of the throat (it is not; that is the uvula). For someone who gives other people shit about being stupid, that’s pretty dumb, especially since he was handing out all those flyers earlier. Jessica can’t even prove him incorrect because the only brochures she can find strewn about are in Spanish. Alas, he will not admit that you are correct.
[Raven: I quite enjoyed Jessica’s demonstration, especially the kids’ interjections. However, they flirted with onomatopoeia and babyspeak, which they actually used earlier in the book, and I can’t stand that shit.] [Dove: Whereas I just loathed Winston throughout this book. Why has he turned into an asshole since the Nightmare Mansion series? We used to love him.]
- Day Three
- Steven gives Jessica shit about looking stupid on the news and the Wakefield parents do jack shit to stop this. Elizabeth reads an article about the Outreach Project that says the council should trim the budget for useless projects such as internships at the health trailer because: Student interns make for fascinating entertainment but scarcely seem to have the knowledge and poise necessary to teach young children about health. YEAH NO SHIT. Sure, volunteers can be trained to teach, but not in less than 15 minutes. This is fucked up and the blame should be on Nurse Jennings. Jessica spends the entire day being teased about it and shows up at the health trailer 15 minutes late. Everyone is aflutter there because there is money missing. Andre had it with him in the trailer during the photo sessions, he tucked it into a brochure, and when he got back to the soup kitchen, the brochure and the money were gone. Jessica pictures everything in her mind and of course settles on a theory that Paul took it because she saw him do a double take when he picked up the brochure. I’m thrilled at where this is going.
- Lila calls Mandy to talk about Jessica’s disaster; Mandy was out of school with a bug and so hadn’t been there to discuss it with Lila earlier. Mandy laughs and laughs at what she saw but hasn’t discussed; Lila swears she’d be the last person to say anything against Jess (riiiiight) but she also found it hilarious. Mandy then talks about almost losing this kid with a buzz cut (who looks like a junior Buzzard, that group everyone’s talking about, apparently a group of hot people from the way Mandy goes dreamy talking about them) but found him playing with this old cookie jar at the rummage sale. Geeeeeeeeee. When Mandy has to go, Lila gets ready for bed and thinks about how she had a good time volunteering, she even got to talk to Paul for awhile, but then the mayor came to talk to him while Lila stepped out to take a message to the day care and when Lila came back, he was gone and the mayor had been serious and Ashlee thought he must have done something awful. Wait, that’s it for day three? So many pages on the time before the volunteering starts and on days one and two and that’s all we get for day three? Good god, the pacing in this is rough.
- Day Four
- Jessica pokes at Lila about Paul and teases that she knows something about him and that the police probably want to talk to him. She calls Lila “poor Lila” (no, that was a far better book than this one) because Lila is the last person to know that Paul is a juvenile delinquent who steals money from the soup kitchen. Jessica has, of course, turned this into a complete competition and even thinks about how it’s like a volleyball game, Lila scored the first point when she got the mayor’s office job but it takes more than one point to score a victory and Jessica’s coming up from behind. Oh, excellent, Jessica knows exactly how to treat poor people as her pawns, I’m so glad.
- Lila actually goes to check on Paul at his house (she looked up his address in the office files) and finds that his grandfather doesn’t speak English. Gee, what a surprise, I can’t imagine what Paul might have seen in a brochure that made him all excited. He’s unhappy, of course, and tells Lila that they even told him they have it on videotape, though he’s not sure what they have because they haven’t told him what exactly it is. Lila argues that he’s talking about being guilty until proven innocent and it’s supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. He points out that it doesn’t matter what it’s supposed to be, they’ve already declared him guilty. Lila decides the problem is the money, so she’ll just give him $200 and he can turn it in and who cares who took the money. Paul is adamant that he won’t take it because it’s the principle of the thing, it’s his good name, it’s how they blame him without actually knowing the truth, it’s how he paid the price for what he did before, he’s not going to pay it again when he’s done nothing.
Lila shook her head and reached toward him with the money. “Don’t be so stubborn, Paul,” she advised him, wondering why it was so hard for him to take the bills. It was only money, right? “Come on.”
“Forget it.” Paul shook his head viciously and stepped back into the house. “Fowler, huh? Of Fowler Enterprises, right? I should have known I couldn’t trust a rich girl like you!” The door slammed.
Lila stepped slowly down the porch stairs.
Why did things like this have to happen?
All she wanted was for Paul to come back to work, and now he was madder than ever. Mad at Mayor Flynn, mad at Ashlee, and maddest of all at her.
But she had only been trying to help!
- GODDAMN. This has taken a sharp turn into something that touches on racism, racial profiling, a racist judicial system, and white people standing by and letting it happen, not even seeing that it is a racist system, and how you cannot solve everything with money, and how the very system itself is corrupt. I did not actually expect the book to go here, so kudos on that, ghostie. Fingers crossed you don’t crash and burn. [Raven: The characterisation of Lila is on point here. Nuanced.] [Dove: Agreed. Though I wonder how much of the depth is accidental, since this is a bit of a clunky book.] [Wing: Pessimistic me says most of it is accidental, though I do want to believe it’s on purpose, so that’s a slight improvement on my mindset.]
- Later that night, Lila calls Jessica to yell at her about Paul and how her lies have ruined Paul’s life. They argue over whether Paul not accepting money from Lila to fix it is proof of his guilt or not, Lila swears she’ll never speak to Jessica again, Jessica is unshaken.
- Elizabeth feels guilty over the missing money, and she and Mrs Tooney talk about how you can’t live your life based on what you should or should not have done. Whatever was done is done and you have to keep moving forward and deal with the fallout from that. Which is a good point.
- Day Five
- Almost done, thank god. It’s Friday, the day of the fair. The pacing on this book has been horrible, especially with everything it’s touched on over the past couple chapters. Far too much time in setup, far too little time actually dealing with the serious topics raised. [Raven: While I think I enjoyed this a touch more than Wing, I can’t deny that the ending is so Rushed it sounds like Tom fucking Sawyer.] [Wing: EARWORMED. Good thing I love that song.]
- Jessica tries to hand out colon brochures but no one wants them especially because they’re in Spanish. She’s not happy even though it is a beautiful afternoon, and she can’t figure out why. Except there’s Lila looking all sad and unhappy and dejected. She even almost talks herself into going to cheer up Lila because who cares if Lila had lots of money, it can’t buy everything, it can’t make Paul innocent when he’s not, she doesn’t want to be jealous of Lila anymore, she wants to be friends, but — oh, Lila was the one who was rude to her, Lila needs to make the first move. So close and yet so far, Jessica.
- Lila hands out the day’s schedule of events but she can’t stop thinking about Paul and how Jessica ruined his life and messed up Lila’s entire week. Though she’s starting to doubt that, because Lila only knows Paul is innocent because she knows him well, knows that he has reformed and couldn’t have taken the money. Oh boy. Further, Jessica can’t be expected to know that stuff about Paul when she doesn’t really know him at all. Mayor Flynn and Ashlee, though, they should know better and they weren’t willing to trust him. That’s the real problem, not Jessica’s accusation based on very little evidence. Lila almost goes to talk to Jessica, but then doesn’t because what if Jessica doesn’t want to be forgiven and also is it disloyal to Paul if she talks to Jessica? It’s all so confusing.
- Mrs Tooney and Elizabeth talk to Jeff about food and how he wants a brownie and how he has money in a cookie jar but not Mrs Tooney’s cookie jar. He talks about how the lungs are the stomach and they are for both breathing and eating, so he was in the trailer during Jessica’s presentation. He could have — and he would have — and he — Elizabeth quickly puts things together and rushes off to find the cookie jar, but it has already been sold just a few minutes ago. Elizabeth is determined to grab help (Mandy and Lila and Jessica and everybody) and then get back the cookie jar. [Raven: I stone-cold HATED that Elizabeth was the first to “solve” this mystery. Sorry Liz, but this was Lila’s puzzle to crack.]
- Meanwhile, Lila finally learns that the colon brochures are in Spanish, and oh, Paul’s grandfather only speaks Spanish, and oh, he’s not been eating right or taking care of himself and Paul wanted to find some information to help him and — and well — and is — THAT’S WHY HE WAS SO EXCITED. But where could the money have gone, because knowing another reason for the double take didn’t prove him innocent (of course, the first reason for the double take didn’t prove him guilty, either, fucking adults can fuck the fuck out of here). Lila keeps thinking about it and then remembers some kid grabbing things on the floor at the soup kitchen guy’s feet and then shoving his hand down deep into his pocket — now if only she knew who the kid was — but Mandy would know!
- Lila and Elizabeth team up because Lila finds her before finding Mandy, Elizabeth tells her about Jeff and the cookie jar, Lila tells her about Mandy and the little kid and the cookie jar, and they team up (but split apart) to go find the cookie jar. Lila finds a man with it, and he turns out to be an antiques dealer. She can’t talk him into giving it to her so she tries to buy it off him, her voice getting higher and shriller the way it always does when she’s nervous (oh my god, you sweet girl), and she’s nearly in tears by the time she gets to $600 and her bracelet, she’s so desperate to help Paul. She draws attention from enough people that the mayor and everyone else, including Paul, come up to her. Lila actually does start crying when she tells Mayor Flynn that it’s not about a cookie jar, it’s not even about money, it’s about someone’s good name. Mayor Flynn actually comforts Lila, strokes her hair, and on the one hand, yeah, in Sweet Valley an adult doing that is generally creepy but on the other hand, oh, sweet girl, you deserve comfort.
“So you offered to buy the jar for six hundred bucks,” Ashlee interrupted, “to get two hundred bucks back?” She whistled. “Talk about crazy. Guess it must be nice to be rich as a toad, huh?”
Lila took a deep breath. “It wasn’t the money, Ashlee. It was the principle of the thing. I—I learned something today. I learned that money can’t buy everything. It can’t buy back a reputation. And it can’t buy peace between friends,” she added, looking at Jessica. I can’t believe I’ve been so horrible to Jessica lately, she thought. I hope that she can forgive me!
- Jessica’s been just as shitty as you have, if not worse, so don’t take on all that blame, Lila. [Raven: One hundred percent agreed. Jessica, like in so many of the late-run books, is a total bellend in this.] [Dove: Lila is far more forgiving than me. I’d still be wanting to stab her over that nonsense with Lila’s mother/”mother” in the last book.]
- Of course the money is in the jar, Lila hands it to the mayor as an anonymous donation for the soup kitchen, people applaud and take pictures, the mayor apologises to Paul and offers him his volunteer job back but for pay this time and tells the reporters to quote her on: It just goes to show you, it doesn’t pay to make snap judgments about people. Or programs, for that matter. Paul hugs Lila and thanks her and talks about how many things he loves (the park, the town, the kid) and says everyone needs to support the Outreach Project. The mayor gives Paul money to take Lila and three of her friends out for ice cream as his first official duty as a paid member of her staff, and Lila of course takes Mandy, Elizabeth, and Jessica.
A week later, everything has turned out just fine, Paul takes Elizabeth, Jessica, and Lila to dinner at the Dairi Burger to thank them personally for helping him (uh, what did Jessica have to do with this part? If she’s there, Mandy had just as much to do), the fair turned out to be the best-attended single event in Sweet Valley history (sorry about your afternoon concert, Johnny Buck), and the jumble sale raised $8,246.72 [Dove: But were there any My Little Ponies for sale? Also, do you guys call them jumble sales or is this the UK version?] [Wing: UK version, I guess. I’ve never heard it called a jumble sale in the USA, though I suppose language is diverse enough here a reader might pop up to tell us where they use it any moment now]. Even more than Lila’s allowance, Jessica teases. And finally, the city council passed a budget with every single cent the mayor asked for, and the school will receive a plaque for all the help the sixth graders provided.
They talk about what they learned from the project:
Jessica: Forgiving people even if they did act rotten to you, things about friendship and loyalty.
Lila: Also learned about forgiving people even if they did act rotten to you, Jessica. And that the lungs aren’t in the stomach. And that politics “isn’t all glamour” which made me laugh.
Paul: Got a job painting the health trailer. (Not something he learned.) And his grandfather is eating better (not something Paul learned). And he found out how useful the health trailer was (okay, he learned that.)
Elizabeth: Takes forever to figure out what she learned but finally settles on: I learned so much that there’s no way in the world I could tell you all of it. [Raven: Oh fuck off, Liz, you sanctimonious shitgibbon.]
What a cop out. Also, though you won’t say it, you three white girls saw a racist system in action and did a little to help make things right. This wasn’t handled particularly well, at least in part due to the pacing and how rushed the ending is, but it was there and that’s more than I expected.
Janet rocks up and is rude to Jessica about the mustard on her chin. Elizabeth says that someone needs to teach her that she can’t just be rude to everyone all the time, Jessica isn’t holding her breath for that to happen, and the next book is set up: Just how far can Janet go before someone teaches her a lesson? Find out in Sweet Valley Twins #117, Down with Queen Janet! So that’s something to look forward to, I guess.
The pacing gets worse and worse as we come to the end of the series. If the entire book was rushed in the same way, I’d believe that the ghosties are hurrying through on tighter deadlines and everyone is impatient to reach the end, but since the first half or so drags so much and the last half is packed full of so much it can’t really be touched more than superficially, I don’t know if it’s that. The structure of each book is weirdly weighted, and I don’t know why. That being said, I was happier with this book than I expected, particularly when it spent so little time on such an important topic, but at least it didn’t completely mishandle it and even if it wasn’t flat out labeled racism, the implications are there, and I would not have expected that outside a Very Special Episode. So, not the worst SVT I’ve read recently, and in the end, not something I hated.
[Raven: I enjoyed this, a little. Not a lot, but a little. Sure, there are pacing problems, and Elizabeth is a total caricature, and the title makes NOT ONE LICK OF TOOTSIE POP SENSE, but it was a proper mystery tale with clues and red herrings and intrigue. I also rather liked the politics talk, and the scope of the overreach project, as both those things made the universe so much bigger and more interesting than the usual microcosm of the school, Fowler Crest and the Wakefield Compound. On the other hand, I’m SO BORED of the Lila / Jessica dynamic, and their constant need to debase their friendship back to a rough-hewn and basic nub in order for them to relearn that they should treat each other like the fucking BFFs they are. Overall, I guess it’s a wash. One more down, thatk the lord.]
[Dove: I didn’t particularly like this one, but I think that’s my headspace at the moment. I think I got all focussed on the stuff that annoyed me – like this ass-pull of a volunteer programme seconds before school ends, the way that Nurse Jennings was terrible at her job, the lack of continuity, and also, I’m kind of over the whole “OMG, A HOMELESS/WOMEN’S/DAYCARE CENTRE IN SWEET VALLEY! LET US TEACH YOU ABOUT THE POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS!” themes that seem to come up in every single book as if it’s BRAND NEW INFORMATION. Seriously, if the next book doesn’t have a brand new homeless shelter that the kids will learn about homelessness for the VERY FIRST TIME EVER, I’m be fucking delighted. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the lesson, I’m against the fact it’s been week after week after week as if it’s brand new.]
[Wing: You being the one with the references to previous books always to hand also impacts your enjoyment, I think. Sure, there are a few moments I caught that we’d done this before, but you always have all the details down, and that has to make it even more annoying when we retread the same ground.]