Towards a taxonomy - Series fiction - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


41. Series fiction


Victor Watson


A series is a sequence of narratives, published separately, often over a considerable period of time, mostly about the same characters, and usually written by one author. Series fictions have traditionally been loosely grouped generically as ballet stories, pony stories, school stories, holiday adventure stories, family stories, and so on. These groupings are convenient, but their use has been misleading, giving rise to the impression that series fiction is by its very nature formulaic, repetitive and unworthy of serious critical attention. It also fails to take account of the many series which cannot be made to sit comfortably within such groups. For example, in Antonia Forest’s Marlow series of twelve novels, four are school stories, two are holiday adventure stories, two are historical novels, and the rest defy categorisation. It would be similarly misleading to label Madeleine L’Engle’s series which began with A Wrinkle in Time as straightforwardly science fiction, or Monica Edwards’ two series as just pony stories.


Towards a taxonomy


There have been at least 300 series for children published in English alone; many of them have been out of print for years, some are entirely forgotten. Nevertheless, it is likely that the most important continuous reading children do on their own is the reading of series - and this is to some extent acknowledged by the thousands of adult readers who continue to belong to societies dedicated to the celebration of the favourite series-writers of their childhood. Yet, in spite of the fact that series fiction played such a major part in children’s reading throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the academic world has been mostly content to accept a number of simplistic critical assumptions about its nature and value.

In the face of such a vast and volatile subject, it is helpful to bear in mind that only two formal features distinguish a series from other kinds of fiction - its extended overall length and its composition in separate narratives. The crucial factor for both the writer and reader of series fiction is the relationship between the entire sequence and the individual novels. On that basis, series fictions can be divided into two types, the progressive and the successive. All series fiction is either progressive or successive, though there are a few rare cases where an author has shifted a series from one category to the other.

A progressive series is one in which a continuous and developing story is told in instalments, each book telling a different part of a sequential narrative, with the characters growing older and more mature. The novels in a progressive series have their own place in the developing narrative and should ideally be read in the correct order. The role of the separate books is to provide a readerly and writerly breathing space and to shape the continuity of experience as a series of significant episodes or stages. The Harry Potter series belongs to this category: it is generally understood that the author’s aim is to write an extended narrative in seven separate parts, each corresponding to a year of Harry’s experience at Hogwarts School. The Narnia series is another, in which The Last Battle is not just the seventh instalment of an extended chronicle but the overall closure. Since a series of novels provides a writer with space, amplitude and extended opportunities for representing the development of character, maturation is often a predominant theme. The North American family sagas popular between around 1860 and 1920 (L. M. Montgomery’s Avonlea novels, L. M. Alcott’s Little Women quartet, and Susan Coolidge’s Katy trilogy) are progressive series, since the main interest is the growth of the protagonists from childhood to parenthood. Another progressive series is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (from 1932): in the first, Laura makes her appearance as a child, and the series tells of her experience at first with her pioneering family and finally as an independent young woman. Similarly, the Australian author Mary Grant Bruce, in the fifteen novels which comprise the Billabong series (from 1910), traces the changes in the life of her protagonists Jim and Norah before, during and after the First World War. However, many progressive series remain open-ended and could, at least in theory, still be developed further; for example, in the Marlow series by Antonia Forest, the last published novel, Run away Home, is not a final closure and new titles could be added.

A successive series is one in which the characters show few signs of growing older or changing in any significant way. This does not necessarily mean that there is little authorial interest in characterisation, only that development and maturation are not a primary concern. The characters in a successive series may be subtly represented, with a great sense of depth and complexity: Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (from 1930) is a successive series and the characters show few signs of sexual or social growth. However, they do change and grow more experienced, and the series is held together as much by them, and by the numerous small dramatic moments which matter to them, as by its themes of boating, exploration and camping. The works in most successive series may be read in any order, since none is critically dependent upon its place in the sequence. There may be brief references in one novel to the events in one published earlier; such references lightly suggest a chronology of events but have little structural significance and serve mainly as signposts (or, indeed, advertisements) for readers unfamiliar with the series. The William Brown stories are a successive series, and so are most of the series by Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville.

Most of the hundreds of series for younger readers - such as the Thomas the Tank Engine series by the British writer the Reverend W. Awdry (from 1945), and the Topsy and Tim series begun in 1959 by Jean and Gareth Adamson - are successive series. The paradoxical task for their authors is to provide narrative (often domestic) action while at the same time suggesting a world of unchanging childhood security. However, some series which have begun as early readers for very young children have matured along with their protagonists: the eponymous heroine of the Katie Morag picture books (from 1984), by the Scottish author Mairi Hedderwick, grows older as the series progresses, her development mirrored by the changes that take place on the Hebridean island which is her home. Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series (from 1940) is also progressive: the principal characters meet on Betsy’s fifth birthday and the later stories take her through her adolescence in Minnesota to her marriage in the final volume.

Fantasy series whose narratives are tied in with a quest structure are invariably progressive and their extended length enables the author to accumulate incrementally the geographical, historical and cultural complexity of vast secondary worlds. They should perhaps be thought of as epic series. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (from 1964) is a distinguished example, as are Catherine Fisher’s two series, the Book of the Crow series (from 1993) and the Snow-Walker series (from 1998). Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (from 1995) and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series seem to have encouraged a number of writers around the turn of the century to begin their own secondary world series - they include William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer (from 2000), Cliff McNish’s Doomspell (from 2000) and Katherine Roberts’ Echorium Sequence (from 1999). However, there are other famous and prolonged fantasy series which are successive - L. Frank Baum’s Oz series (continued after his death by other ‘royal historians’ of Oz) is shaped not by a single unifying quest but by a sequence of separate visits to the fantasy land of Oz; and the Doctor Dolittle series by Hugh Lofting (from 1922) is held together more by the Doctor’s character and idealism than by a developing quest or single adventure. A variant of the epic fantasy is the eco-series, such as Colin Dann’s Farthing Wood series (from 1979) and the swashbuckling stories in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series (from 1986).

There are series in which the main unifying feature is not a character or group of characters but a place or an institution. This - particularly in Britain - is most frequently a school, as in the Greyfriars stories by Charles Hamilton, which appeared in comics, annuals and novels from 1908 until the post-war years; or the six Malory Towers titles by Enid Blyton (from 1946); or, more famously, the Chalet School stories (from 1925) by Elinor Brent-Dyer, comprising fifty-eight volumes about a school which, despite having to change location a number of times during the Second World War, retained its pacifist and non-denominational unity. However, the unifying place might also be a house, as in the Green Knowe series by Lucy Boston (from 1954). All these series have a uniquely collegiate quality, and what distinguishes them is a strong sense of a community of people who spend a good deal of their time in this place and whose lives are significantly shaped by its character. A classic example of a collegiate series is William Mayne’s Choir School novels (from 1955) in which the cathedral is more than just a setting but has its own unique character and history which shapes the children’s and teachers’ lives; Gene Kemp’s Cricklepit Combined School series (from 1977) shows that an ordinary contemporary state school, with little history and no glamour, can nevertheless have a collegiate and benevolent character of its own.

Ballet stories - and career stories in general - have a unique celebratory character and appeal mostly to a specific readership. They are mostly progressive series, following the careers of a single character or group of characters from childhood to professional success in adult life; the best-known example is Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells series (from 1950). Ballet stories may also have a collegiate flavour, in that both the action and the ethos are shaped by a dancing school or a group of performers. Like much series fiction, ballet stories not infrequently turn into moral fables, love stories or thrillers; but what unites them is their authentic representation of various kinds of passionate dedication to a personal ideal or ambition. The many British series of pony stories also have a habit of turning into other kinds of fiction, but, like ballet stories, they have their own distinctive flavour - a unique yearning and celebratory quality to which millions of young readers have responded. Horse stories in the United States and Australia, though different from British pony stories in setting and readership, take for granted in their readers a similar romantic interest in animals as well as a passion for wild countryside settings. Two excellent examples of these are the series by Mary O’Hara, set in Wyoming, which began with My Friend Flicka (1941), and the Silver Brumby series of ten novels (1958-96) by the Australian writer Elyne Mitchell.

Finally, there are the publishers’ format series. These consist of works, often written by a syndicate of authors, bound together by theme, characters or genre, and marketed as a recognisable commodity with its own brand features. There are purists who believe that their appeal is ephemeral, that their literary significance is minimal, and that they are not series fictions at all but other kinds of fiction disguised as series. Nevertheless, the disguise is often very effective, for a format series may aspire to the conditions of either the progressive or the successive series, and they frequently take on many of the features of the collegiate series. Format series have a long history: in 1904 The Bobbsey Twins were created by Edward Stratemeyer under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope; in 1927 the first of the Hardy Boys series was published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and in 1930 the same syndicate published the first of the phenomenally popular Nancy Drew. Among the most popular current format series are the Point series, covering several genres - Point Horror, Point Crime, Point Romance, Point SF, and others. The British Animal Ark series (from 1994), though written by several different authors, appears under the name of ‘Lucy Daniels’ and successfully achieves narrative unity by means of its veterinary theme and consistent characterisation. The American Sweet Valley High series (from 1984) is also written by a team of writers, appearing under the name of ‘Kate William’, the story outlines drafted by Francine Pascal, the series creator. A distinguished forerunner of the format series was Lucy Fitch Perkins’ Twins series, in which all the stories were concerned with twins in different countries and at different historical periods. This series began in 1911, was continued by other writers after Perkins’ death, and remained in print for many decades.