Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Some Thoughts on Series Novels

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.

What are your thoughts on series fiction? What were your favorites growing up, and what are your favorites now? Please leave me a comment and/or a link to your post on a similar subject!

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


  1. The very first books I enjoyed reading were series books by Enid Blyton, especially the Adventure Books and the Five-find Outers. I think that series such as these and the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series, where the protagonists never change or age, give young readers stability in their reading fare because they always know what to expect.

    Series like Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables, where the protagonists do grow up and change and have unexpected and sometimes bad experiences, are a good way for slightly older readers to a) understand that these experiences are universal, and b) prepare them for having such experiences themselves.
    Anne of Green Gables was probably the first book I read where a beloved character died, and it brought home to me the inevitability of losing loved ones that I would experience later in life.

    As for series in general, I think they are a good way for an author to establish a brand, with recurring characters becoming like old friends to the readers. One series I am in the middle of and enjoying is the In Death books by J.D. Robb, where each book is an independent story, but developments in the characters' lives from book to book make it desirable to follow the series in the right order.

  2. +JMJ+

    I like series, too, even the ones set in those time warps! (LOL!) In fact, I suspect I may like them better because of those rigid parameters. I know what to expect but can still be pleased by creativity within those limits. (Juvenile series are the new sonnets! LOL!)

    How often have I read more "serious" novels in which child characters I could identify with grew up into adults I just couldn't stand? That wouldn't happen with the Boxcar children or the Baby-sitters Club members! And I think that's why Francine Pascal's attempt to have several Sweet Valley series is totally bogus. (Yes, she's trying hard, but that doesn't mean she isn't also failing spectacularly. ROFL!) My favourite was always Sweet Valley Kids. I couldn't believe those great second graders grew up into those awful teenagers in Sweet Valley High. And although I haven't read Sweet Valley Heights (because SVU was just too much), it sounds enough like Melrose Place to make me mourn the children all over again.

    I seem to be propping up your thesis that this sort of series lulls the reader into a comfort zone, don't I? =P Yes, it's true . . . but I think there's a legitimate place for such zones in one's reading universe.

    (Interesting note: C.S. Lewis would have been pretty down on them. He wasn't a huge fan of books that make you sad after you read them because you find yourself back in the real world instead of with the characters. He said that truly good books make you happy even if you know you will never be in that perfect world with those wonderful characters.)

  3. @Enbretheliel: No, I agree that there's definitely a place for series novels that lull you into a comfort zone... there was a time that I, in my literary snobbery, began to look down on most of the favorite reading from my (misguided?) youth... but then I realized that reading should be fun just as much as it should be educational, etc. and besides, who am I to look down on Sweet Valley too much, when I wrote my thesis on Buffy the Vampire Slayer?? :-D

    I'd be REALLY interested to know where you read this stuff about Lewis... I've read some of his non-fiction and literary commentary, but not all... send me an email and fill me in on the details :-D

  4. +JMJ+

    The e-mail has been sent! =)

    On a related anti-literary snobbery note . . .

    Oone book that made a huge impression on me when I read it and still influences my teaching to this day is Mary Leonhardt's Keeping Kids Reading. In it, she tells parents to stock up on what they might think of as "sub-literature": juvenile series books, TV and movie novelisations, Romance novels, etc. These are (as I think author Jackson Pearce described The Boxcar Children in a vlog) the "training wheels" children need in order to appreciate the Great Books someday.

  5. Loved your post (and love the meme - must participate).

    Like Bibliophile, I started of on my reading adventures with Enid Blyton (Noddy) and then moved on to the Famous Fives and Five Find Outers and Secret Sevens and the school series etc. enjoying them all tremendously. I might be the world's biggest Enid Blyton fan!!

    However, once I finished reading all the Enid Blytons (!), I moved on to Nancy Drew, and I loved it. The mystery stories were great, but I was a biiig sucker for the casefiles, where there was more action and drama. I don't know if you ever read Nancy Drew On Campus, but I couldn't deal with those, as the Nancy Drew world that I had created in my head came crumbling down! As an adult though, one of my biggest grievances with Nancy Drew is that, as far as I know, we never find out how her mother died when she was just three years old. Surely, that's had a part to play in her becoming a detective and being that focused on solving crimes, but that's never addressed. I mean, Nancy Drew could be a bit like Batman in that sense... i.e. Bruce Wayne saw his parents being killed before his eyes, and that led him to become this dark super-hero. That's what I would have liked to see Nancy become...

    I skipped Sweet Valley as it was just too idyllic and also twisted - I think I read something where Elizabeth pretends to be Jessica as she has a crush on her boyfriend, and Jessica also does the same... and that's not okay in my head!!

    Harry Potter - I am an addict, and yes, it deals with loss and death and reality in a more mature way. The thing that I like about Rowling's super successful series is, it's not a one-man show - Harry really couldn't be able to do all he did without Hermione and Ron, and Hermione is definitely a lot more adept than the boy that lived.

    I like series for their continuity, and for familiarising myself with the characters so much so that they almost seem like old friends. Also, sometimes, I do like reading fanfiction, just to see how other readers are interpreting the characters. Most of the stories are painfully bad, but there are some gems out there, which are quite enjoyable. That said, I'm yet to discover a Harry Potter fanfic I like... mostly all of them have gay references or twisted relationships and I just kind of go: umm..... this is not okay!!!

  6. +JMJ+


    That's a great point about Nancy Drew's mother! I think I wondered a bit about her when I inherited my own mother's collection, but my own big issue was that each book would end with Nancy and her "chums" (Remember that term? LOL!) promising to write and keep in touch with all the new friends they had made while solving a mystery, but the very next book would have absolutely no mention of them at all. It was as if each story unfolded in a different but parallel universe!

    At least Sweet Valley had a bit more continuity--though I don't say this just to be contrary! ;-) Even I know that continuity is not the franchise's strong point, although the ghostwriters make some valiant efforts. =P

    A few years ago, a friend and I discussed were discussing our issues with SVH, and she basically reiterated what you said about the twins flirting with each other's boyfriends. In Elizabeth's Diary, Liz goes after one of Jessica's more serious boyfriends; and in Jessica's Diary, Jess actually dates Todd behind Liz's back! I haven't read those myself, but they sounded more like sensational Fan Fiction than supplementary material to be taken seriously. Ultimately, the whole Sweet Valley world is just one big soap opera in which character development doesn't exist.


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