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Two Types of Series Books

Posted by Jen Robinson on September 7, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Series
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Inkheart.jpgContinuing my post on favorite series from last week, I've spent a bit of time thinking about two types of series books. The first type of series consists of multiple books that follow one primary story arc. Examples include the Inkheart series, the Percy Jackson books, and the Lord of the Rings series. While there are, of course, multiple plot streams within each of these series, the books are meant to be read together, to tell a single, epic, story. Clues are planted in one book that aren't explained until the end. There are sometimes major cliffhangers between books. When I wrote about series books last week, I limited my discussion to series with more than three titles, to keep the number of favorites under consideration manageable. But obviously, most trilogies fall within the spectrum of these single story arc series. In general, many fantasy titles fall within this single arc, multiple-book format.

Junie.jpgThe other type of series is more episodic. Susan alluded to this in her original post, when she talked about kids who need to read even the Magic Treehouse books in order (even though there's no strong continuing arc across the books). An episodic series (like the Captain Underpants, Junie B. Jones, and Encyclopedia Brown books, to name a few) might have dozens of titles. While the books generally all feature the same primary characters, each book has an independent storyline. This is commonly observed in mystery series (for kids and adults). The same characters solve each mystery, and the story is usually wrapped up within the course of each book.

Of course the difference between these two types of series is not always black and white. For example, in many episodic series (though by no means all) the characters experience personal growth and/or changes in their personal lives from book to book. This keeps the series from becoming flat, and adds an additional incentive for readers to pick up the next title. Still, there's nothing stopping a reader from picking up and reading a title from the middle of the series - the plot won't be confusing.

Also, just because a series ends after a few books doesn't mean that it was a single arc series. All of the books might be only loosely connected, and able to be read out of order. The end point of the series could be arbitrary. It's also not uncommon for something to start out as a standalone book, and then have one of more sequels added. By definition, such books weren't originally published to tell a single story. I don't think that we can expect them to hold up together as one, consistent story arc when they weren't planned that way (though the books may still be wonderful as individual books).

Still, despite some blurriness in this classification, I do think that this breakdown of single story arc vs. episodic is helpful in thinking about series books. The different formats serve different needs. Episodic series are a huge part of various markets, from early readers to adult mysteries. There's something satisfying about reading bite-sized books, at one's own leisure, and then having new books, with familiar characters, become available later. But there's nothing like a tightly-connected continuing series for generating excitement among readers. Harry Potter and Twilight together have created thousands upon thousands of avid readers, in part because of the suspense from book to book, the compelling need to know how the series will end.

I've always remembered something that Rick Riordan said about this. He wrote on his blog, on the eve of publication of Harry Potter 7: "The series is still wonderful and I will be sad to see Harry go. On the other hand, I hope Rowling sticks to her guns and ends the series at seven. Nothing should go on forever. Even the best series must have a solid, strong ending. Again, I know many would argue with this. There are readers who would happily buy Harry Potter #28 years from now, but I think seven is plenty."

It seems to me that Riordan is talking more about the single story arc series than about episodic series like the Magic Treehouse books. For new readers who want to read 50 books from the same series, I would argue that it's great to have those 50 books available. And for me as a reader of adult mystery series, I hope that my favorite authors will keep those new mysteries coming.

All Harry Potter books.jpgBut for series based on one primary story, like the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books, I think there's real value in limiting the number of books. One of my favorite things about the last Harry Potter book was the way that Rowling hearkened all the way back to events from the first book. She made it clear that she had planned out the whole series in some detail. Stephenie Meyer did the same thing with the last Twilight book. This approach makes the reader feel cared for and respected, in a way that a more haphazard approach to ending a series can't.

What do you all think? Have you noticed this divide in series books? Do you favor one type or another? Or do you like different ones for different times? And do you have any suggestions for a better name for these single story-arc series that I'm talking about?


Kirsten writes...

Then there are authors like Madeleine L'Engle, whose books for children functioned both independently but also loosely as part of a series. I really hate books, like the inkheart series, that don't end, that leave you hanging for a year until the next one comes out.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

That's a good point, Kirsten, about the loosely connected books. I tend to think of those connections between non-series books as a gift for the loyal reader. They're little hidden treats, there for the people who recognize them, without taking away from the people who don't.

As far as cliffhangers go, I do sometimes wait until a series is finished to read it, so that I don't have to worry about intermediate cliffhangers. I generally prefer for each book to have its own resolution, in addition to the overall arc of the larger series story. But there are exceptions, books that I wouldn't miss, cliffhanger or no...

Susan writes...

Interesting distinction, Jen. Now that you mention it, my kiddo goes for the episodic series over the other kind. Right now he's liking Louis Sachar's Wayside school books--a "series" of 3. He also liked Ghosthunters. Both of these use the same characters, but a reader can just jump right in with them.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

A commenter on PBS' facebook page put it well - she said the two types are like apples and pears. Both good, just different. I think a lot of younger kids prefer the episodic series, in which each book is as welcoming as any other, at any given point. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if your son sticks with the episodic series, or is drawn to the more plot-driven books at some other point, Susan.

Garrett Fitzgerald writes...

I favor the ongoing story lines -- I have a taste for epics. :-)

One of my favorites is Diane Duane's Young Wizards series -- I've been reading them since I was in college in the 80s, and she's still writing them. It's fun to see clues she plants in one book come to fruition several books later...

(Full disclosure -- I like the books so much I help run her website.)

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I like Diane Duane's books, too, Garrett. I'm hoping that there will be another one soon. There is something very satisfying for the reader, when something planted in an early book comes to fruition later, as you say.

Sharon writes...

I'm a fan of both and was a fan of both types as a kid. Sometimes you just need to pick up a single story and read it. Other times you really need to follow the characters through multiple plot lines and watch them develop and grow. As I watch my kids, I can see that one will read anything but the other is clearly a bigger fan of the epics.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

That makes sense, Sharon. My brother was only interested in the epic stuff from a very early age (and still is). Me, I probably slanted more to episodic when I was younger, and more to epic now. But I agree - it definitely depends on my mood.

My Boaz's Ruth writes...

Any idea which category the Gregory the Overlander books fall into?

(I'm still hoping we see more!)

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I'd put the Gregor the Overlander books in the epic category, My Boaz's Ruth. I felt like the series was planned out, and that the primary dramatic arc was completed in the last book. I could see other books set in the same world, perhaps, but I think that they'd be a different series. Suzanne Collins is working on another epic series now, the Hunger Games series, geared towards young adults.

Nessa writes...

Hi, I'm not on the same page as you guys, but I have a question you might be able to answer... I have a son who is now 23 and is on the autism spectrum, not a good reader. I would love to get him interested in reading but as a young adult, it's hard to find appropriate material that isn't too mature for him, either. He really liked the Harry Potter early stories, but has slowed down a lot (we still haven't finished listening to the audio of the final book, but we have purchased them all in audio format and have purchased all the movies, and gone to them in the theater, as well). I'd like to find some more series books like this. Any ideas you can offer me? Any books that might be more geared to those with reading comprehension issues?

With much appreciation,

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Hi Nessa,

I would highly recommend trying Rick RIordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (starting with The Lightning Thief). The author specifically wrote the books to help engage his son, who was a bit of a reluctant reader, in books. They've been hugely successful (the movie version of the first book will be out early next year), and I think they might be just the thing for your son. You might also try the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo. The text in the books is double-spaced, because the author wanted to make the books more accessible to readers who have difficulty physically processing text. It seems to me she would have had reading comprehension in mind, too (though I don't know this for certain). Also, as mentioned in the other comments, Suzanne Collins' Gregor the Overlander series has been a big hit with young male readers. The books are on a similar writing level to the early Harry Potter series (though, like the Potter books, they do get a bit darker as the series progresses). I can't say that the books are geared towards people with reading comprehension issues (that's a bit outside of my knowledge base), but they are books written for middle grade readers that I think are thoughtful and complex enough to interest someone older.

I hope that these suggestions help! If not, and you need more, please do come back and comment again - we can always ask other readers to make some suggestions, too.

Kristen M. writes...

I prefer the epic series because of the ability to have a much deeper plot and wider range of characters. But when I was a kid I liked the episodic series better just because you could grab whatever was at the library and be okay. They also tended to be released more often or the series already had a good number of books in it so there was a long way to go before you exhausted the series. It's always sad to finish an epic series. Still, I love them and I think that the next book is always worth the wait!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I'm with you on epic series, Kristen. There's a place for both, of course. But that sadness when you finish the last book of an epic series, and you know there isn't going to be any more to story... sad, but satisfying, too. Oh, I just love stories, in all their flavors!

My children have enjoyed both kinds of series books, and it seems that certain authors just have a way of creating characters and situations that really capture their interest.

They can't always put their finger on what they like about any given book or series. It just seems that the writing either pulls them in right away or it doesn't.

I think great children's books are like nature in the respect that their beauty often cannot be described in words. There's just something about them that leaves you thinking and wondering, but at the same time, content NOT to have all of the answers.

We all need a little mystery, don't we?

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I guess if every book (or series) had that magical quality, it wouldn't be as special discovering the ones that do, Dawn. I write reviews all the time, and I have certain qualities that I look for in books. But I think you're right - there's also some sort of alchemy to the best ones, something that can't be dissected, but can always be appreciated. And of course it's an interaction with the reader, too, making the deciphering that much more complex.

Jennie writes...

This divide is big at our library because its on of the things that determine whether a book is shelved as regular fiction or a series. We tend to refer to them as "open-ended" and "closed." The closed series will end when the over-all story ends and you usually know well in advance how many books the series will be. The open-ended one will end when the author is tired of writing new adventures or sales drop off enough for the publisher to stop putting new ones out.

There is also an interesting age divide. While there are certainly exceptions, in general the open-ended series are written for readers 4th grade and under, who don't yet have the comprehension skills to follow a single story arc across multiple volumes but do like the familiarity of reading about the same characters. The closed series tend to be for older readers, 4th grade and up who like the familiarity but also crave direct continuation and can follow an arc between books, even if they have to wait a year or two between installments.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for chiming in on this, Jennie. I hadn't thought about it from a shelving perspective, but I have struggled sometimes with finding books on the regular shelves vs. on the "series" shelves, so I can see that it must be a challenge to decide. I've certainly noticed that age divide, too (though as you say, it's not absolute). I think you summed it up well!

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