Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

41. Series fiction

 

Victor Watson

 

Critical approaches

 

Critical approaches to children’s series fiction have been confused and inconsistent. One view has distinguished series where subsequent works are mainly formulaic and repetitive

from those where from the outset the author perceived and planned the series as an artistic whole. A similar distinction is sometimes made between popular and literary series (between, say, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series); but the two terms are problematic, shifting and culturally loaded, and not necessarily mutually exclusive anyway. Critics with an educational perspective are generally more welcoming, since they regard series fiction in terms of the ways in which it can help young people to become sophisticated readers: familiar and predictable characters ease an inexperienced reader into what might otherwise have been a daunting new narrative, formulaic plots teach prediction skills, and the business of collecting all the titles may well be an important step in becoming a serious reader.

However, series fiction has suffered less from biased criticism than from neglect. Often the first work in a series has been given some critical attention and its sequels merely listed or summarised. Such perfunctory treatment implies that to follow a successful novel with a sequel is a loss of writerly seriousness, a decline into repetitive and formulaic spin-offs. But that is not how a series is experienced by its readers: if they found the sequels less interesting than the first story, they would stop reading them. The best series fictions are not simply strings of pot-boiling sequels; they involve a good deal of serious commitment on the part of both the writer and the reader. Deciding to read all the novels in a series implies a commitment and involves a special relationship which the reader has made a conscious decision to sustain. There is an implied promise made by a series-writer, and a recognition of the readerly desires of young readers. J. K. Rowling’s understanding of this desire and of her responsibility to keep the implied authorial promise partly explains the success of the Harry Potter series. And, like the best of the great series-authors, she knows how to keep that promise without being strait-jacketed by it - each sequel taking both her own writing and the reader’s reading into deeper narratorial levels of interest and reflection.

In the past, critics and reviewers rarely took the trouble to read an entire series; certainly those who suggested, for example, that the only novel worth reading in the Anne of Green Gables series is the first had probably not themselves read the last - Rilla of Ingleside (1921), a dark and impressively convincing ‘home front’ novel set during the First World War. However, there has been an improvement in recent years: David Rudd’s exemplary study of the series fictions of Enid Blyton has demonstrated the value of detailed and attentive critical study of such extended narratives.