When I was in elementary school, I used to read a lot of series novels. I started out with mysteries: The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys were my all-time favorites. I ripped through every new installment of these classics of mass production with a fervor that dazed most of my classmates. Then I moved on to those staples of the Young Adult section in the library: Fear Street and Sweet Valley High. To me, all of these series function sort of like comfort food, or a favorite song that you want to play over and over and over again when you’re in a certain mood.
The most attractive thing about these types of series is the way that readers can inhabit their worlds so fully and for such a prolonged period of time (since the texts are never-ending). The characters represent certain things – for example, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield from the idyllic Sweet Valley lead the epitome of perfect contemporary teenage lives, while Nancy embodies (a much more admirable) womanly independence. Readers want to have the kinds of experiences that these characters have, and live these kinds of romantic or adventurous lives; we want to be these characters. We step into their worlds over and over again because we enjoy putting on their skin. I’ll admit it – I went around pretending to be Elizabeth Wakefield for a while. She was the less-flirtatious twin who liked to read and was the editor of the school paper, but still managed to have a lot of friends and a cute steady boyfriend. I envisioned her as a prettier and more well-liked version of myself, which gave me hope that perhaps I would blossom into a more popular person in high school. And who didn’t want to be as cool as the adventurous Nancy Drew? I kept pestering my mom to let me take judo lessons so that I could kick some bad guy butt, just like her friend George Fayne (another independent female, for the uneducated in our audience).
But there’s another type of series – the kind that likewise allows readers to inhabit a world more attractive then their own, but doesn’t exist in some kind of time warp. The characters age, change and even occasionally die. While Nancy Drew, Elizabeth Wakefield, and all their friends remained immortally frozen as eighteen-year-old-blonds, other characters graduate high school, go to college, get jobs, watch parents and godfathers and headmasters die, and even (shock!) get married and have kids. Kids would have been the death of the Nancy Drew series, unless our heroine could figure out how to hide herself in the trunk of a roadster with a baby strapped to her chest in a sling. Nancy Drew was never really about reality – but many of the series that later became my favorites don’t indulge their readers by freezing time. Even many contemporary series fiction featuring immortal characters such as centaurs, vampires and werewolves have started dealing more realistically with the concepts of aging. (Check out Bella's fear of growing older than Edward in the Twilight series...)
Nancy Drew was definitely my favorite series while I was growing up, but while the character will always remain amongst my most important role models, several more emotionally developed series have surpassed her franchise in my heart. Topping the list are: The Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, His Dark Materials and most importantly, Harry Potter. I appreciate the way that L.M. Montgomery and J.K. Rowling in particular depict the complexity of adolescent emotion and do not shy away from series topics that other YA authors have typically avoided.
Montgomery created a eccentric, dramatic and ultimately lovable young literature fanatic – and then followed her through high school, college, career, marriage and motherhood. While the publishing industry and Hollywood both seem to believe that life after marriage brings death to the narrative, Montgomery understood that marriage and family simply bring about new types of conflict and drama, including grief. Anne is confronted with choices about career as both a teacher and a writer, and deal with how those will work in conjunction with her marriage. She also must face the deaths of first Matthew and then Marilla – and while children’s literature is awfully fond of presenting us with orphan characters, it doesn’t usually like to depict the actual death and grieving process too often. I love the fact that Montgomery managed to write a series that doesn’t shy away from the realities of marriage and death, but still makes me constantly laugh out loud.
Likewise, Rowling’s Harry Potter is clever and funny, yet seriously confronts loss, death and the resulting grief. (This is, in fact, the subject on which I wrote my Master’s Thesis.) It may seem odd to label a fantasy series like Harry Potter as “more realistic” than so-called contemporary fiction, but in my mind, Rowling’s novels are far more emotionally genuine than anything produced by one of the many Carolyn Keenes and Francine Pascals.
I hesitate to say that this makes Montgomery’s and Rowling’s novels better than the Sweet Valley High Series or Nancy Drew (although I certainly think they’re better than Fear Street, hands down). Despite the fact that both types of series are written to entertain the reader, one is meant to lull the audience into a comfort zone so that we return again and again for the same kind of adventure. The other series boast more emotional complexity; novels like Anne and Harry likely have more to teach us and provide a more cathartic experience. In one, we rehearse our ideal lives (as a popular high school student or an amateur sleuth) while in another, we rehearse the realities of life that we are not yet prepared to face – loss, death and grief. Although I once believed that one purpose was higher than another, I think I am coming to see that both have value to all kinds of readers.
This post is inspired by the 30 Day Book Meme that I've been seeing on several other book blogs, but I've modified it somewhat. Here's the original meme, in case you'd like to participate:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than 3 times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time