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Reading by Number

Posted by Susan on August 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM in
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A few weeks ago I wrote that I was a little jealous of a young patron who was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Truth be told, it wasn't just that he was reading it for the first time... it was that he was able to read it at all. He had started the series only a month earlier and had already worked his way through nearly all seven books. It was such a contrast from all the years I waited for the entire series to be published.

Lord of the Rings.jpgWould the series have been so successful if the books had been published closer together or farther apart? I don't think it would have mattered. Series books are episodic by their very nature. At one point in time, nearly every series ever published is unfinished... but we tend to forget that when we have the whole series in front of us. For example, I remember mentioning the torturous wait for Harry Potter 6 to my boss at the time. She responded by telling me how difficult it had been for her to wait for the whole Lord of the Rings series to be published.

I think that the long agonizing wait actually made me appreciate the Harry Potter series more. I analyzed, thought about and puzzled over each book for years while waiting for the next one. Each book was a treat to savor, because I knew it would be years before I would get the next installment. (All of this is in retrospect, of course. At the time, the waiting made me crazy.)

On the other hand, there's also the sheer joy of being able to pick up the next book in a series (any series) right away. It lets you continue living in the author's magical world for just a bit longer and it helps with continuity. My mom read the first few Harry Potter books as they came out, but they didn't do much for her at the time. She kept forgetting the characters and plot lines... and reached the fourth book without being quite sure she knew who You-Know-Who was. After all the books were published, she read the whole series together and found it a far more enjoyable experience. The intricacies of the story were much easier for her to follow.

Dark Whispers.jpgSometimes, we may not even realize we're reading a series. A teenage patron recently showed me her summer reading log, and I noticed she had given a very low rating to Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville. I asked if she had enjoyed the other two books in the Unicorn Chronicles. She replied by saying she had no idea Dark Whispers was the third in a series... but that it would explain an awful lot.

I've also talked to people who claim not to mind reading out of sequence. There are kids who will read whichever book happens to be on the shelf at the library. For some series, it really doesn't matter which order you read them in. Usually, I just recommend reading the first book published before reading the rest. But I always wonder about kids who read, for example, Harry Potter #6, then #2, then #7. Are they getting anything out of the books? Does it make any sense?

On the other end of the spectrum, I frequently see kids who love to read in order. No matter the series, whether it's the Magic Tree House or Geronimo Stilton, they want to read every book according to its number. For these kids, there's nothing more valuable than a good series database.

Big Woods.jpgSometimes, the numbers themselves aren't entirely straight forward. Let's take the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder as an example. When I was reading the books, they were numbered in this order: #1 Little House in the Big Woods, #2 Little House on the Prairie, #3 Farmer Boy... etc. That has since changed, and the current numbers on the sides of the books are: #1 Little House in the Big Woods, #2 Farmer Boy, #3 Little House on the Prairie.

I had a young patron tell me recently how much she had enjoyed Little House in the Big Woods, but #2 (Farmer Boy) made her stop reading the series. Sometimes, I think in the quest to be chronological, publishers can sometimes leave a good story by the wayside. As for how to number the series, I think this list is the best.

How do you like to read a series? Slowly and methodically over time, or in one big gulp? In order or out of order? Has chronological numbering versus publication date ever been an issue for you in a series you've read? Have you ever waited for a series to be fully published before you started it?


Lex writes...

You state: "She responded by telling me how difficult it had been for her to wait for the whole Lord of the Rings series to be published." The whole LOTR series was published/ released in the 1950's. I think you may be confusing it for the series of films which were released in the 2000's.

SusanAuthor Profile Page writes...

Hi Lex,
Good point! My boss was probably in her late sixties or early seventies at the time of our conversation. She was talking about waiting for the book of The Return of the King, which came out while she was in college.

Susan writes...

I like to read series in order but bounce back and forth between 2 or 3 different series if I'm waiting for books I have on hold at the library. Keeps me interested! :) And I assumed you worked with someone who was reading LOTR when they first came out - people ARE still alive who were reading in the 1950s haha! Good article, makes me rethink reading the Harry Potter series again. I was kinda lost myself by the time Book 7 came out - made the HP&HBP fun to watch on the big screen though, I had forgotten half of it! :D

Rosalea writes...

RE: Lex

Actually, according to several sources, LOTR was published as duology in the 1950s. The third book took a while to be released. So she could have been referring to the actual publishing dates, not the movies.

Inga writes...

Lex, since it was her boss it might well apply to the books not the films. The boss wouldn't have had to be more than 64 years old to have been a teenager waiting for the books in 1955...

Margaux writes...

I did HP one at a time, and the long delay did make it harder for me to catch up and get into them again. As for waiting for a series to be fully published, I did just do that with the Twilight series, in a matter of a week I was through all 4 books, it was hard enough to finish the first and wait to go to the store to get the next 3, let alone imagining waiting for who knows how long till the book was published. In all honestly it was much more fulfilling and satisfying reading the books all together.

Travis writes...

I do prefer to read a series in order of the world's time line. The best example I have of this is I have two collections of the chronicles of Narnia, I have my Father's editions which are numbered in the original order (by publication date) and I have a fairly new box collection of them numbered by the order of the time line of the story. I've also read the Shannara in chronological order, at least I had until the newest series of Shannara books came out which was also a prehistory. But I read them anyway. The only series I've ever waited to read is the Wheel of Time series.

Resha writes...

Once I was able to read chapter books by myself my mother started selecting the first book in a series to read at bedtime. Then, if I was interested in the story, it was up to me to read the rest of the books.

Some series are enhanced by the delay and anticipation between books, but sometimes I lose steam if the wait is too long. As a teenager there was the joy every year of a new David Eddings for my birthday and later a new Harry Potter every year or so, but I completely lost interest in Tad Williams Otherland by the time the fourth book was finally published.

Melissa writes...

Why would she be mistaken? According to this:,Return of the King was released in the UK in 1955 and later in the US. If her boss was around 60 years old, the timing is appropriate.

Virginia writes...

I agree with you that the waiting between books makes it easier to appreciate each book for itself. Whenever a Harry Potter book was coming soon I would reread the two or three books before the new one to "catch up" again. That kept me interested and let me see the details of each book.

I'm very annoyed by the reordering of the Narnia series. It really wouldn't make sense to read them in "chronological" order. I think Lewis wanted the reader to come in in the middle and figure out the beginning and the end later. That's how we live life, from the middle.

As for the Lord of the Rings, my Dad tells me it wasn't certain that the third book was ever going to be published. Tolkein apparently got tired of it or something, so he worked on other stuff. I can't imagine reading the first two and not knowing whether the conclusion would be published or not. At least with Harry we knew we had a commitment from JKR to do all seven!

Virginia writes...

I just read that Wikipedia article. I guess my Dad's memory was flawed, but it does say the third book was delayed in the states. Isn't it interesting the way memories are really more visceral than factual?

Kristen M. writes...

I am very picky about reading books in series order. I just started the Discworld books and the jumbled timeline is stressing me out! There's a nice chart for reading order but it bothers me a bit not to be reading them in chronological order. I have a feeling my son will be the same because he has the same love of order.

And the joy of finding a new series and being able to devour book after book is fabulous!

Beth writes...

I tried to wait until the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series was out before I began reading them, so I didn't have to wait, but I couldn't stand it anymore and broke down and read what has been published. I hate to wait; I'd rather read them all at once. Not only do I avoid waiting between installations, I also don't forget significant plot points or character details.

Karen writes...

What is wrong with waiting for the next books in a series to be published? I understand the sense of frustration while waiting for the next book, but it makes it all the more exciting when it finally arrives! Be patient, people!

Elaine Willis writes...

I am totally compulsive about reading books in order. I don't think I am physically able to do otherwise.

I have not ever waited on an entire series to be published, but if I know a trilogy is coming out back to back, I will wait on those.

I love series fiction.

Lori writes...

I am a huge Little House fan, and my favorite has always been #2, "Farmer Boy". The reason for the strange numbering is simple...
When Laura wrote "Little House in the Big Woods', it was based on her memories and stories of when she was 5, as she is aged in the story. She then wrote "Farmer Boy", which is based on her husbands' Almazo's childhood. Now, Almanzo was 10 years older than Laura, and the book is based before she was even born. The later books, which talk about their courtship and marriage, were changed a bit- Laura was concerned that, as she married at 18, the readers would think her 28 year-old- husnabd was too old for her- so he was changed to 21, or 3 years older.Also, "Little House On the Prairie" (#3) actually happened when Laura was 2, and is based on tales form her parents and Mary.
So, to add confusions.....Farmer Boy happened a few years before laura was even born. Then the Prairie years, then Big Woods. The Ingalls started off in the Big Woods-Mary and Laura were born there...then they traveled to Kansas, where Carrie was born, then back to the Big Woods for a few years."Farmer Boy', while her second book, was chnged to 3
#3 for a while so that Almanzo seemed closer to age to Laura-i.e. if it was to be taken as after "Prairie, Laura would have been 6ish, and Almanzo 9ish.
Also, some of the memories for "Big Woods" were form Lauras' very early years, before the move to Kansas, but her publishers insisted that a 2 years old cannot remember such she was aged to 5 to combine the Wisconsin years. later on she had to skip a few years so she could 'catch up' to her real age in the story.
I hope that this helps explain the 'discrepancy' of the stories' order!

SusanAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for the information, Lori! I like Farmer Boy quite a bit too... but it can be confusing to a child reading the series for the first time. After reading one or two books about Laura... the reader isn't quite sure who Almanzo is.

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