When Will It End? Series Books!

Children’s series chapter books are a three-generation thing around here. Right now, our house looks like it’s hosting a Magic Tree House Festival. I, personally, loved the The Three Investigators and Nancy Drew. My mom still rhapsodizes about Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series. We’re in good company—turns out that Supreme Court justices have a thing about Nancy Drew!

The Titan-haired teen detective. Did you know that she's also been a blonde?

The Titan-haired teen detective. Did you know that she's also been a blonde?

What are your favorite series? I didn’t realize how deeply influenced I had been by all those series mysteries until I walked into my friend Beck’s lovely paneled dining room and felt the urge to press all the molding until a secret compartment revealed itself. Caroline Reitz makes the case that Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books strikes a chord with adult readers because of her many similarities to Nancy Drew:

Say what?” you say, but think about it: motherless father worshipper, devoted to car, sense of the old morality, small-town community policing, bizarrely patient boyfriend.
— Caroline Reitz

When I was a kid, I heard that series books were trash when I was a kid and I remember thinking, “Nope.” Now that I’m doing a nightly read-aloud I’ve realized that series books are terrific reading practice. A good series is, overall, a thumping good read (thrills! chills! adventure!). Many elements are the same from book to book--but since you want to catch up with your favorite characters' adventures in each new installment, you don't care. This means that once you’ve read “Titan-haired teen detective” and figured out what the phrase means, you get better and faster at reading that phrase and can save sound-out-the-pronunciation-and-ask-questions-about-meaning time for the stuff that’s unique to that book. Maria Vincente, of quirkbooks.com also notes, “You don’t really know a character until you read about them in 132 different titles (that’s how many The Baby-Sitters Club books there are, not including “special” volumes).”

betterreading.com, an Australian blog, lists five reasons why children love a good series. The one that grabbed me was

2. Accomplishment and reinforcement: Kids feel a real sense of achievement when they finish one book, and then two, and then three in a series. And each time they finish another, they have more confidence that they can read and are readers. Studies show that reading more books and reading regularly boosts literacy skills and promotes academic achievement and emotional development. That’s partly why school programs and projects like the state Premiers’ Reading Challenges focus on the quantity of books read.

Children’s series books have exploded in recent years. So far we’ve read mostly classics (Little House, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, My Father’s Dragon) but I’m looking forward to getting into some newer series (check out this comprehensive list of great series from Goodreads).

Walking in High Cotton’s Jamie Oliver shares my overall read-aloud philosophy—she says, “Our time with the kiddos in the house and under our influence it too short to waste it with lame books!” She’s tracked down some series set in the West that I’ve never heard of—has anyone read The Texas Panhandle Series by Loula Grace Erdman? Or the Big Red series by Jim Kjelgaard? Check out her lists for girls and boys (she says that she encourages crossover but that her daughter and her sons have very different tastes). Thien-Kim Lam of imnotthenanny.com put together a list of diverse chapter books for young readers which is also terrific.

Big Red,  by Jim Kjelgaard--a dog series in which the dog  doesn't die ! How awesome is that! Thank you, Jamie Oliver.

Big Red, by Jim Kjelgaard--a dog series in which the dog doesn't die! How awesome is that! Thank you, Jamie Oliver.

Series reading is perfect motivation for mastering the process behind library inter-branch loan requests and learning to navigate the inter-library loan request system (Kent State University's library site has a nice explanation of the interlibrary loan system and process). You’ve read series #1-9 but the library is inexplicably missing #10? Off you go to consult with a helpful librarian and fill out that loan request. Pro tip for those of you with wiggly kids—I have even copied off the form with my name and library card number already filled in so all I have to do is write in the details of the individual book I’m requesting.

This brings us to a philosophical question: how do you feel about reading the books in a series out of order?  Sharanya Sharma wrote for the BookRiot blog that reading series books out of order gives her

this niggling voice in the back of my brain that is unequivocally certain that we are missing something CRUCIAL in the previous book(s) and that I’ll never know what it is because I am breaking the rules. 
— Sharanya Sharma

To quiet that nagging voice, she’s had to set herself up with ground rules.

Alison Peters wrote for BookRiot that:

I could not read Sweet Valley High #100 before #99. I was very upset when news trickled down to my pre-teen self that someone decided that the Narnia books were totally out of order, and The Magician’s Nephew (the one with the origin stories) was supposed to be read first.
— Alison Peters

But lately, she says, she’s tried diving into later books in a series. Her take on whether or not to read a series out of order is that if the books in a series are good as standalone reads, go for it! And when you get to the earlier books, “Enjoy the flashback-ness of it all.”

After a series ends, what comes next? I’m not sure I’ll ever catch up with Nancy Drew (she’s on adventure #175, Werewolf in a Winter Wonderland). Right now I’m reading Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Author) and Pamela Smith Hill (Editor) because it has all of the backstory—newspaper articles from the time and lots of pictures—behind the Little House series.

But what if you're not content with learning more about the writer's life or reading other, similar books? Philip Fulmer from the T3I (The Three Investigators) Readers’ Site endearingly writes,

I am in the process of fulfilling a lifelong dream of completing a Three Investigators story. It actually will not be my first. The first T3I story I wrote was when I was in the 5th grade as a project with two other boys. Our entire class was assigned to work together to write a story or a book. I was heavily in the passion of T3I at the time and suggested that we write a T3I story which we entitled The Mystery of the Headless Horseman. 
— Philip Fulmer

Anyone can write fan fiction, because anyone can be a fan. The great thing about fan fiction is that you can write your own story for the characters you love. Imagination Soup’s Melissa Taylor  recommends the fan fiction James Potter series (available for free at Goodreads) for kids, but she also has some fabulous tips for getting kids writing Harry Potter fan fiction themselves.

Book one in the James Potter series by G. Norman Lippert. J.K. Rowling says that she's fine with Harry Poter fan fiction  as long as it's noncommercial and suitable for young readers .

Book one in the James Potter series by G. Norman Lippert. J.K. Rowling says that she's fine with Harry Poter fan fiction as long as it's noncommercial and suitable for young readers.

Taylor specifically notes in an aside to parents that just like everything else on the internet, some fan fiction is inappropriate for kids. She advises using story ratings as a guide (https://www.fictionratings.com has guidelines for the most frequently used fan fiction ratings). I’ve loved Neil Gaiman’s and Lev Grossman’s takes on the Narnia-verse, but both were decidedly adult. Both contained some X-rated content, but more importantly, asked adult-level questions that would spoil the Narnia experience for a young reader.

Years ago, my friend Sylvia told me that she’d had a simultaneous best/worst vacation experience at The Title Wave used bookstore in Portland, Oregon. A nearly complete Nancy Drew series was on the sale shelves—but her luggage space was strictly limited! How was she supposed to choose? I’d love to hear about the series books that have shaped your reading career—and what you’re getting into now!