History - Series fiction - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


41. Series fiction


Victor Watson




Series fiction began in North America when James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers was published in 1823, the first of the Leather-Stocking Tales. For younger readers there was the monumental Rollo sequence of twenty-eight stories by Jacob Abbott, the first a picture book for three-year-old beginner readers, and later titles taking the young man on a tour of Europe; this progressive series was published between 1835 and 1864 and assumed a readership which would grow up alongside the fictional protagonist.

Family series fiction began in 1864 when Sophie May published the first of the Little Prudy series, and in the following year the first of the Dotty Dimple stories. North American readers were indeed fortunate at that period: in 1867 Martha Finley, under the pseudonym Martha Farquharson, published the first of her Elsie Dinsmore books, a series of twenty-eight titles which, between 1867 and 1905, traced the life of the eponymous heroine from the time she was eight until she was a widowed grandmother. Then, in 1868 and 1869, Louisa May Alcott published Little Women and Little Women Part II (known in Britain as Good Wives), to begin one of the most famous and influential series of novels (strictly speaking, a quartet) ever written for young readers. Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did and its two sequels followed (1872-86), and then the Five Little Pepper series of twelve family stories (from 1881) by Margaret Sidney (Harriet M. Lothrop); in 1903 the first of Kate Douglas Wiggin’s three Rebecca stories was published - Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm - and Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna appeared in 1913, followed by a number of popular sequels by Porter and, after her death, by Harriet Lumis Smith and others.

A major problem for the authors of the family sagas was to avoid representing growing up as a diminishing of dramatic interest. The limit of their exploration of their characters was sex: they took their heroines to courtship and marriage, then they either left them there, or turned their attention to the next generation of children. The only family saga of the period to address these difficulties was Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, by L. M. Montgomery (1908-21). Montgomery faced the challenge directly: would this vivid child, like so many others, vanish into the unspoken mysteries of womanhood? In fact, the series matures into a moving account of Anne’s transformation into a wife and mother, representing with considerable power the depth of her love (and grief) for her children. Montgomery was interested in the form and nature of series fiction itself, and its ability to adapt to the changing world: Rilla of Ingleside, while not exactly metafictive, does question the assumptions implicit in the earlier novels of the series, especially the value placed upon the centrality of joyous imagination in a world transformed by war into hideousness.

This period also saw the appearance in the USA of other kinds of series fiction. In 1895 Annie Fellows Jonston published the first of the Little Colonel series, and The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls - and a ‘Golliwogg’ appeared - the first of the famous Anglo-American Golliwogg series by Florence K. and Bertha Upton. In 1900 Gelett Burgess’ Goops and How to Be Them appeared, the first of his series about the balloon-headed Goops, and in the same year L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In 1904 the Bobbsey Twins were created by Edward Stratemeyer, and the first of Joseph Altsheler’s popular series about the French and Indian Wars appeared in 1916. In 1918 a book entitled Raggedy Ann Stories was issued, first of the Raggedy Ann books written and illustrated by Johnny (Barton) Gruelle.

Series began to appear in worldwide profusion. In Australia, Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers and how They Grew had appeared in 1881, followed by eleven further titles, and in 1910 Mary Grant Bruce wrote the first of the fifteen novels in the Billabong series. In Britain in 1899, E. Nesbit published The Story of the Treasure Seekers, followed by two novels and a related collection of short stories; Five Children and It followed in 1902, the first of the Psammead stories. In Britain, a great outpouring of popular school series began in 1919 when Elsie J. Oxenham published A Go-Ahead Schoolgirl, and her Abbey School books (around forty titles) began to appear in 1920. The Senior Prefect by Dorita Fairlie Bruce (renamed Dimsie Goes to School), first of a series of ten, was published in 1921. In 1923 she launched a new series of nine novels with The Girls of St Bride’s. The most long-lasting of all the school series, however, was the monumental Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer, a total of fifty-eight novels published between 1925 and 1970. Enid Blyton - queen of series-writers - wrote the first of her St Clare’s School stories in 1941 and Malory Towers followed in 1946. The first of Anthony Buckeridge’s twenty-five Jennings books appeared in 1950. Ronald Searle was involved in two school series of a different kind: the first was his inspired and parodic St Trinians! series (from 1948) and the second was Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth series, illustrated by Searle, which began with Down with Skool (1953).

In the period between the wars, many series spilled over into, or from, comics (Billy Bunter) and film (Tarzan). Meanwhile other popular and innovative series began to appear: the first of Hugh Lofting’s twelve Doctor Dolittle books appeared in the USA in 1920 and in Britain in 1922; the first of Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories was published in 1922; and in 1932 The Camels Are Coming - first of what was to become the Biggles series - appeared in an aeronautical magazine, Popular Flying, established by the author, Captain W. E. Johns. In 1932 Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods was published, Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories began in 1933, P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins in 1934, and Margot Pardoe’s Bunkle series in 1939. In the USA, the Stratemeyer Syndicate released The Tower Treasure in 1927, first of the Hardy Boys series by ‘F. W. Dixon’; Nancy Drew made her first appearance three years later in The Secret of the Old Clock.

It was a prolific period in the history of children’s books. When Swallows and Amazons appeared in 1930, the first of a series of twelve, Arthur Ransome’s unpretentious and unhurried story of camping and sailing initiated what amounted to a new genre in Britain which expressed for many - both children and adults - a resurgent love of the British countryside and a desire to explore it. Between 1930 and 1960 camping and tramping fiction - alongside school stories - dominated children’s reading in Britain, covering between them the whole school year. Their writers caught the national enthusiasm for hiking, cycling, exploring and boating, and created narratives celebrating the appeal of the (mainly) English land- and sea-scape. There were popular series (largely forgotten except by adult enthusiasts) by M. E. Atkinson, Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, Malcolm Saville, Garry Hogg, Aubrey de Selincourt, Elizabeth Kyle, Elinor Lyon, David Severn, Marjorie Lloyd and many others. The pony story - a close relative of the camping and tramping story - made its first significant appearance in series form shortly after the war: Ruby Ferguson’s Jill series began in 1949, and Monica Edwards’ two related and overlapping series, the Punchbowl Farm and the Romney Marsh series, ran to more than twenty titles, written over twenty years from 1947. These series were predicated on a belief in the intelligence and good nature of children, and their ability to cooperate; when Erich Kastner wrote the series which began with Emil und die Detektive (1929), he created an urban equivalent set in the streets of Berlin; after the war, Paul Berna’s Le Cheval sans tete (1955) began a series set on the streets of Paris.

The 1940s and 1950s were dominated in Britain by two writers, Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville, who matched each other’s output series for series. Blyton - whose work excelled in terms of sales and reputation - is best known for the Famous Five and Secret Seven series (from 1942 and 1949); Saville - whose work showed a more serious interest in both landscape and characterisation - was particularly popular for the Lone Pine series (from 1943). The phenomenal output of both these authors was multiplied by the massive growth in paperback sales that took place at that time. It was partly because of the sheer volume of series production, and its association with cheap paperbacks, that series fiction began to be perceived by teachers, librarians and many parents as formulaic and trivial.

In the USA things were different: short family series of very high quality were appearing which consciously addressed thoughtful and literary readers, not infrequently acknowledging the influence of E. Nesbit. In 1941 Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays appeared, the first of four stories about the Melendy family; in the same year the first of the Moffat series by Eleanor Estes; in 1954 Half Magic, by Edward Eager, first of a series of seven; and in 1956 A Lemon and a Star, by E. C. Spykman, first of the series about the Cares family. In 1957 Elizabeth Enright began a second series, the Gone-Away Lake books.

Then followed a fruitful period in which new authors began to challenge the perceived blandness of Blyton’s overwhelming output. In 1948 the first of Antonia Forest’s outstanding Marlow series appeared; in 1949 Willard Price’s popular action-packed Adventure series began with Amazon Adventure, and Geoffrey Trease published the first of the Bannermere stories; Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books (from 1945) were first translated into English in 1950. It was a time of great innovation, exemplified by C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (from 1950), Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (from 1952), Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe (from 1954) and Henry Treece’s Viking’s Dawn (1955), the first of a trilogy. Two popular science-fiction series appeared in the USA - the Lucky Star series under the pseudonym Paul French (Isaac Asimov) in 1953, and in 1954 The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, first of a series of tales of space travel by the distinguished author Eleanor Cameron. In 1958, the Australian writer Elyne Mitchell published The Silver Brumby, first of a series of ten, and the following year saw the English translation of the first Mrs Pepperpot story by the Norwegian writer Alf Pr0ysen. Among the many series for younger readers there were Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister (from 1951) and the Clever Polly series by Catherine Storr (from 1955).

In the 1960s several series were initiated which were to dominate children’s fiction for three decades, particularly fantasy, science fiction and comic history. In 1959, the first of the Miss Bianca series by Margery Sharp had been released, and in 1960 Madeleine L’Engle published Meet the Austins, first of a series which included the award-winning A Ring of Endless Light (1980). In 1962, she published A Wrinkle in Time, the first of her distinguished and complex series about the Murry and O’Keefe families. In India the first of the thirty-five Feluda detective series by Satyajit Ray appeared in 1961. Joan Aiken’s James III series began in 1962 and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain appeared in 1964. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series began in 1965 with the publication of Over Sea, under Stone; in Australia, Bottersnikes and Gumbles, the first of the series created by S. A. Wakefield, appeared in 1967; and the same year saw the first of the Amar Chitra Katha comics series by Anant Pai, based on Indian culture, mythology and history. The Wizard of Earthsea - the first of what was to become Ursula Le Guin’s great fantasy, now a quintet - was published in 1968.

In the closing years of the twentieth century there was no lessening of the range and variety of series fiction. K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series began in 1970, and in the same year the first of Barbara Willard’s historical Mantlemass series was published. More recent history was addressed in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), first of Judith Kerr’s Out of the Hitler Time trilogy; in Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie series (from 1972) about the troubles in Northern Island; and in No Gun for Asmir (1993), first of a series by the Australian author Christobel Mattingley, about a Bosnian boy caught up in civil war. The Diamond Brothers stories - parodic thrillers which defy categorisation - began with The Falcon’s Malteser (1986) by Anthony Horowitz. Several notable female protagonists made their appearances in series fiction at this time: they include the eponymous heroines of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona (from 1968), Helen Cresswell’s Lizzie Dripping, originally commissioned by BBC TV for Jackanory in 1972, Penny Pollard (from 1983) by the Australian author Robin Klein, Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series (from 1985), and - for younger readers - Dick King-Smith’s Sophie series (from 1988). Francesca Lia Block’s five postmodern Dangerous Angels fairy tales (from 1989) - set around Los Angeles about the adolescent Weetzie and her friends - were more controversial.

In the age of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, fantasy currently seems to be in the ascendancy in series fiction. Trilogies abound. However, even before these two remarkable publishing successes, fantasy had become more subversive, inventive and creatively mischievous, ignoring the boundaries which defined history, fantasy, comedy and science fiction. None better illustrates this than Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series (from 1977), which triumphantly challenges the usual expectations of series readers. In 1983 Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard, the first of her Young Wizards series, combined in a totally original way elements of myth, fantasy and science fiction. Explanations - and narrative demonstrations - of space travel and relativity were central to Russell Stannard’s Uncle Albert series (from 1989). The Mennyms (1993), by Sylvia Waugh, introduced a troubling new series in which stories of the adventures of a family of rag dolls allegorically raised deep philosophical and religious questions. The Obernewtyn Chronicles (from 1987), a series of four novels by the Australian writer Isobelle Carmody, are futuristic post-holocaust narratives, and another distinguished Australian series began with John Marsden’s Tomorrow, when the War Began, a sequence of novels about seven young adults fighting for survival when their country is invaded.

The key to understanding the appeal of series fiction lies in the appreciation of endings. A series is not simply an extremely long serial; it is a sequence of narratives each with its own closure, providing points of completeness while allowing for the renewal of acquaintance with familiar much-loved characters and situations. Writers, however, may not necessarily share their readers’ enthusiasm for extended continuity: L. M. Alcott, rounding off the last of her quartet about the March family, famously admitted that it was ‘a strong temptation to the weary historian to close the present tale with an earthquake’. Subsequent and contemporary authors, however, have shown no signs of such weariness and the appetites of readers remain unappeased. There is no end to the writing of series fiction.


Further reading

Ang, S. (2002) The Master of the Rings: Inside the World of J. R. R. Tolkien, Cambridge: Wizard Books.

Auchmuty, R. (1992) A World of Girls, London: Women’s Press.

Cadogan, M. and Craig, P. (1976) You’re a Brick, Angela! A New Look at Girls’ Fiction from 1939-1975, London: Gollancz.

Campbell, A. and Gibbons, D. (1998) Outstanding Sequence Stories, Swansea: Librarians of Institutions and Schools of Education.

Donaldson, S. R. (1986) Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, Kent: Kent State Libraries.

Donelson, K. (1978) ‘Nancy, Tom and Assorted Friends in the Stratemeyer Syndicate Then and Now’, Children’s Literature 7: 17-44.

Moss, E. (1976) ‘On the Tail of the Seductive Horse’, Signal 19: 27-30.

Reynolds, K. (1990) Girls Only? Gender and Popular Children’s Fiction in Britain 1880-1910, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Watson, V. (2000) Reading Series Fiction: From Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp, London: Routledge- Falmer.