Here's looking at you

21st April 1995 at 01:00
THE BABYSITTERS CLUB 59: MALLORY HATES BOYS (and Gym) 0 590 55834 X. BABYSITTERS MYSTERY 8: JESSI AND THE JEWEL THIEVES 0 590 55835 8 By Ann M Martin. Scholastic #163;2.50 each.

SWEET VALLEY UNIVERSITY, By Francine Pascal College Girls. O 553 4O787 2.LOVE, LIES AND JESSICA WAKEFIELD O 553 4O788 O Bantam #163;2.99 each. FIRST COMES LOVE:IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH. By Jennifer Baker. 0 590 556258 Point Romance #163;3.50.

THE BOYFRIEND CLUB, By Janet Quin-Harkin Ginger's First Kiss. O 14 O37378 O. RONI'S DREAM BOY O 14 O37379 9 Puffin #163;1.99 each. FORD SUPERMODELS OF THE WORLD, By B B Calhoun The New Me O O9 9553O1 5. PARTY GIRL 0 09 955311 2 Red Fox #163;1.99 each.

The invasion of the American mega-series continues with the UK publication of more Babysitters Club titles from Ann M Martin, whose breezy, thoughtful stories for nine to 13-year-olds have sold 100 million in the United States since 1986. The hopes, fears and adventures of the members of a babysitting co-op in a small Connecticut town have sustained the BSC series plus its spin-off Little Sister, Mystery and Specials books.

Along with child-minding jobs, schoolwork and family crises, the friends are much preoccupied with image. Claudia wears arty ensembles and makes her jewellery; Stacey, the sophisticated Manhattanite, is the essence of cool; super-efficient Kristy is happier in jeans or softball kit; 11-year-old Mallory - star of the latest book - suffers in her braces and unflattering specs.

Martin's approach to the anxiety and self-discovery that clothes, bodies and appearance represent for young women is to allow her characters to explore different "looks" without making one more desirable than another. And the snappier dressers, such as Claudia, are dressing for themselves, not for boys.

In Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley stories, however, the Baywatch babe is Prom Queen. Pascal has sold a mere seven million copies in the process of getting the cream of Southern Californian youth through high school. The Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High books have beaten a path to Sweet Valley University, where Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield - twins with blonde locks and Pacific-blue eyes - join the freshers in the latest titles.

Little has changed on this campus since the Fifties rites-of-passage novel. The female students may be wearing Lycra instead of bobby sox but many are still obsessed with pledging the right sorority and dating a baseball jock for the Homecoming Ball. PC has not penetrated SVU.

The Sweet Valley High books hook readers with a racy style and cliffhanger endings, then slip in challenging issues - date rape, anorexia,broken homes - alongside dispatches from beach parties and pep rallies.

The college series is cast in the same mould. In the first two SVU tales,Pascal tackles the strain that new surroundings impose on long-standing relationships, the insecurities behind the frantic partying and the misery of those who fail to conform to the norm, which is well-heeled Wasp in this case.

The pressure on girls to look the part is a constant theme in the Sweet Valley High books, but the desirability of the acceptable image - as modelled by the Wakefields - is never questioned. At SVU, skinny blondes have more fun. Down-to-earth, diligent Elizabeth is allowed brains as well as looks, but it's still a disaster when she gains weight. Jessica, the megalomaniac cheerleader, is a stern judge of appearance, quick to condemn "friends" who "couldn't get a date on the Planet of the Apes".

The twins provide non-identical role models: Elizabeth is Ms High Achiever, Jessica Ms Fun-Loving but Irresponsible. Not that the SVU climate encourages too much irresponsibility. Nobody gets high on anything stronger than espresso and safe sex is promoted.

The First Comes Love books by Jennifer Baker, campus romance novels aimed at older teenagers, are tearjerkers on a Love Story level. The central character Julie, a journalism student disowned by her parents after marrying the unsuitable Matt at 18, pays relatively little attention to her image, being preoccupied with money problems - unlike most of the SVU crew, she's working her way through college - and, in the latest story,Matt's terminal illness. There is a fashion-victim role, however, filled by Julie's friend Dahlia.

Janet Quin-Harkin travels some of the Sweet Valley High territory in her Boyfriend Club series. The title is self-limiting, with the club's four members meeting Mr Right at the rate of one a book (as in all these stories, only heterosexuals need apply).

The first two titles also focus on the upheaval of transferring from a small local school to the 2,000-pupil Big Mesa High in Phoenix, Arizona. Big Mesa is less Wasp-infested than Sweet Valley - one of the most interesting characters, Roni, is a Mexican girl struggling not to sink into the predominant Anglo culture. Not everyone looks like Jessica Wakefield - but the point is that most of the girls want to.

The Ford Supermodels of the World books, backed by Naomi Campbell's agency, take the image business apart, following six would-be supermodels from around the world on their first assignments.

Looking good is a full-time job for high school girls and models alike. And if there's a worse crime than neglecting to wax your legs, it's Trying Too Hard. Both Big Mesa's gawky Ginger (Ginger's First Kiss) and Paige, the Ford agency's find from the Midwest (The New Me) endure in-depth makeovers for their first big dates, only to discover that whoops, boys prefer the girl-next-door image. Who says? What's more, who cares?

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