Series Books

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Series Books

Series books are considered to be any number of similarly plotted novels involving the same characters, settings, or genre expectations. They are marketed according to the familiarity of recurring titles or authors. Stressing repeatability of action and character type over complex development, they are generally of two typeseither the same sort of plot resolves within each title, or a much lengthier plot is carried over a large number of books. Typical of the latter is the development of a single character over several adventures and years, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder's lengthy Little House series (19321971). Many critics believe that the first series books arose in the early to mid-1800s, as entertaining fiction for children began to deviate from the gloom of religious primers and as various characters gained popularity. Jacob Abbott's Rollo series, beginning in 1835, is among the first. Early series books starred extremely pious children, such as the syrupy Elsie in Martha Finley's Elsie Dinsmore series (18671909), or orphansmorally upright, hard-working protagonists who overcome adversity and are rewarded for their pluck. Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick, serialized between 1868 and 1870, remains among the most famous and influential examples of the latter type.

Dime novels at the turn of the nineteenth century became some of the most popular fiction of the time. Edward Stratemeyer (18621930) became an extensive developer of series titles when he founded a publishing syndicate around 1905. Employing a team of ghostwriters working under pseudonyms, Stratemeyer outlined and sometimes authored over a thousand novels, creating nearly seventy different series, from the Rover Boys (18991926) to the Bobbsey Twins (19041992). From 1900 through the middle of the century, Stratemeyer's fiction dominated the bookshelves, as he produced novels on sports, travel, adventure, Westerns, and especially mysteries. Nancy Drew (1930) and The Hardy Boys (1927), thrilling mysteries featuring extremely bright and fortuitous young detectives, remain Stratemeyer's two most successful creations. Books featuring technologyboats, cars, radios, detecting equipmentincluded the Tom Swift series (19101941), which is about a young scientific genius and his fantastic inventions. By World War II, war series became especially popular, painting volunteerism in romantic strokes. The Cherry Aimes books (19431968) by Helen Wells, about a young nurse who works in various settings, and Margaret Sutton's terrific Judy Bolton series (19321967) also developed the female protagonist in new directions.

After the heyday of World War II, several different genres rose to prominence, overtaking the success of earlier titles. Mysteries flourished through series such as Gertrude Chandler Warner's The Boxcar Children (1942) and Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown books (1963), which contained logic puzzles, with answers to the mysteries found in the back of the book. The 1980s saw the increasing popularity of high school serials such as Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High (1983) and Caroline B. Cooney's Cheerleader series (19851987), while the younger market exploded with Anne Martin's prolific Baby-Sitter's Club (1986 ). Similarly popular, and heavily marketed toward younger girls, were a succession of animal series such as Bonnie Bryant's The Saddle Club (1988). R. L. Stine meanwhile repopularized the horror genre through such series as Goosebumps (1992) and Fear Street (19891991), terror stories in various incarnations featuring young protagonists encountering a plethora of horror clichés. Multicultural trends culminated not only in the very popular American Girl books (1986) by Pleasant Company, marketed with a collectable line of dolls, but also in the historical memoir tradition, with such books as Scholastic's Dear America series (1996). By the turn of the century, consumer culture and chain bookstores profoundly influenced series books, linking fiction with marketing more directly than at any time before.

Because of marketing demands, most series books attempt to achieve a tone of familiarity and predictability, drawing on readers' expectations by recreating recognizable worlds of codified plot devices. By doing so, series books often employ rigid patterns in order to carefully balance a feeling of easy security with rich excitement. They are sometimes weighed down by the narrative devices necessary for marketing. These include the need to provide exposition for new readers, often found in asides in early chapters, and advertisements for other titles, enticingly placed on the last few pages. But these narrative specificities do not discount the profound value of these books. The body of fiction characterized as series books includes some of the most popular and significant artifacts of literature for young people and remains deeply pleasurable for those who remember reading them.

See also: Carolyn Keene; Children's Literature; Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling.


Billman, Carol. 1986. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory. New York: Ungar.

Johnson, Deidre. 1993. Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Kensinger, Faye R. 1987. Children of the Series and How They Grew. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. 1975. The Girl Sleuth. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Prager, Arthur. 1971. Rascals at Large; or, The Clue in the Old Nostalgia. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Chris McGee