Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


41. Series fiction


Victor Watson


Resistance to taxonomies


However, the difficulty in applying a taxonomy of this kind to such a fluid and volatile phenomenon is the subjects’ resistance to categorisation. This is partly because there is an ambiguity of purpose latent in all series fictions: their desire to provide readers with more of the same and simultaneously to tell a new story. Series readers desire closures but fear termination. Furthermore, while they appear predictable, series fictions are often intrinsically volatile. The principal reason for this is that authors, readers and the narratives themselves are uniquely affected by time. A series may be written over a period of many years, perhaps covering most of a writer’s professional life. In that time the authorial interest is likely to change direction and the later writing will be done with a consciousness of public feedback. Any series fiction, therefore, might shift from one kind to another in the course of its progress. An example is Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series: there is a case for believing that the early novels in the series comprise a progressive sequence on the character of George and her relationship with her father, but that the subsequent successive stories were written in response to their enormous popular appeal. Authors after completion have been known to write additional works, either to fill in narrative gaps (as L. M. Montgomery did with the Avonlea stories, quite properly calling the new titles ‘Chronicles’) or as major ideological reappraisals (as Ursula Le Guin has done with the Earthsea sequence).

Because a series is written and published over a long period of time, there are consequences for readers too. Reading any completed series from beginning to end provides a sense of prolonged and incremental intimacy with the main characters, and a crucial sense of change and development over an extended period of time, intensified through the slow accumulation of linear narrative. However, for readers of a current series there is an additional factor: they cannot complete the narrative at their own pace but must wait for further instalments to be provided. This waiting - with its accompaniment of shared and excited anticipation, marketing publicity, literary awards, film adaptations and journalistic speculation - becomes part of the reception process.

A more integral difficulty is the mismatch between fictional time and real time. The twenty titles in Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series were issued between 1943 and 1978, a period involving considerable social and cultural change; but the fictional time is no more than four or five years. In the foreword to Not Scarlet but Gold (1962), the fourteenth title in the series, Saville explained to his readers that he had decided to address two difficulties at once - maturation and the passing of time:


it is now time for the David and Peter [Petronella] of the first story, published nearly twenty years ago, to behave as if they are sixteen today. So now, at last ... these characters are facing their adventures - and indeed each other - as if they were living in the 1960s.


In effect, Saville was changing the series from the successive to the progressive. In practice, though, many authors have a way of sidestepping this difficulty: they allow fictional time to pass extremely slowly and social changes of setting to slip unobtrusively into their narratives. One author explicitly drew her readers’ attention to both the difficulty and the solution: Antonia Forest pointed out in a prefatory note to The Thuggery Affair (1965) that in the seventeen years since the first in the Marlow series had been written only eighteen months of fictional time had passed; she explained that the only way of dealing with this problem was to give each story a background more or less consistent with the year in which it was written. Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series for younger readers was written over such an extended period of time (almost half a century, 1929-75) that its details of country life (fetching water, using candles) required in later editions an explanatory historical preface.

Just as much of the best of children’s fiction addresses matters without appearing to mention them, some of the greatest series fictions for children have a complex thematic circularity, or a mercurial coherence, while seeming only to fit within one of the accepted categories. Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman sequence, for example, outwits the serial nature of series fiction. Despite the linearity of its progressive narrative in six of the seven novels, the series is expansive and inclusive. Its authorial attention circles around a particular group of people, back in time in The Runner, and out into other families and communities; but Dicey remains the centre, the series beginning with her and returning to her at the end. Mary Norton’s Borrowers series - while appearing to be a simple linear fiction moving in one narrative direction - in fact constitutes a complex fictional exploration of the loneliness and yearning which lie thematically at the centre of the author’s fictional world. Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series is another example: this series is held together by far more than a house or its inhabitants for - despite the elegiac sense of a world in decline and an environment continually being destroyed - the novels convey a celebratory conviction that we are all capable of imaginatively transcending time.