Steve Rosson makes the case…
Joan Aiken, Bernard Ashley, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Anne Fine, Dick King-Smith, Sheila Lavelle, Penelope Lively, William Mayne, Michael Morpurgo and Chris Powling… What do they have in common?
All authors of children’s fiction. All hugely popular with their readers. All widely critically acclaimed.
And – all with stories published in one or more of the increasing number of series now being published for developing readers.
A trawl through publishers’ catalogues or a glance at the shelves of your local book wholesaler will indicate just how big a business series publishing for 6 to 9 year-olds, these `newly independent readers’ looking for `books for solo enjoyment’, has become.
Now some people do get very ‘sniffy’ about the whole concept of series publishing. Indeed, in the January 92 edition of Signal, Elizabeth Hamill and Nancy Chambers between them do a comprehensive hatchet job on series telling us that `an entire sector of reading matter’, that is fiction for 6-9 year-olds, `has become “drenched” by the series mentality’ and wondering `what on earth publishers, authors, teachers and librarians’, and that’s pretty much all of us who read Books for Keeps, `think they are offering young readers when they give them books that are clearly pre-digested formula in concept and content’.
Now we all know that there is formula writing about but it’s my belief that most of it can be found at the teenage end of the market with `Cheerleaders’, `Sweet Valley High’, `Point Horror’, assorted TV spin-offs and other similar stuff. The series we’re discussing here are wholly different. Take a random selection of a dozen books from one of the better series and what will you find? A collection of stories by different authors and illustrators covering a range of genres and each one standing or falling on its own merits. Written to a prescribed length certainly, but that’s a length suited to the target audience. With a tendency towards the comic possibly; but then that’s what youngsters of that age enjoy.
So what makes a series? In the end perhaps it’s only the marketing device of a distinctive cover (that late twentieth-century drive for corporate identity), a common type-face and a somehow indefinable `feel’. And they are enormously popular and successful. Does this deserve the vitriolic criticism it gets from some quarters of the children’s book world? I think not.
Neither, obviously, do the publishers.
For me the leaders of the pack in series publishing are Heinemann with their `Banana Books’ and ‘Superchamps’. Perhaps I’m prejudiced as it was a handful of Banana Books that I tentatively trialled on the shelves of the library at my multi-racial, inner-city comprehensive school and watched in amazement as they disappeared within minutes which led me into buying more and more series books. Perhaps it’s because of the outstanding line-up of authors they use. Perhaps it’s because the price is so attractive. Even the Signal article accords them some grudging respect.
When I spoke to Rosemary Debnam, Series Editor at Heinemann, she was understandably reluctant to claim to be the market leaders, but certainly saw her company as pioneers in the field. `What on earth were they offering young readers?’ I asked.
‘High-quality, imaginative writing,’ was the response. `Snappy, fast-moving stories that hold the child’s interest with plenty of plotting and a great deal of humour. We also aim to have a full-colour illustration on every opening. An awful lot of care is taken over each book and we are using top authors who are not limited in any way by subject or content.’
She was keen to point out that an enormous amount of research took place before the launch of `Bananas’ in the early 80s. They were designed for `newly fluent readers’ and Heinemann aimed for `a pocket-money price’; although how many are actually bought with pocket-money is open to doubt as very few series titles are sold through bookshops to the public. Economies of scale help to keep the price down as six titles are printed at a time and the standardised size is obviously a key contributory factor here.
The `Jets’ series from A & C Black (hardbacks) and HarperCollins (paperbacks) also gets a half-nod from Signal; accorded some respect for taking young readers seriously but then accused of having `a certain predictability’ after three years. Not surprisingly, Fiona Kenshole, Fiction Editor at HarperCollins, leapt to defend series publishing. She too pointed to the vast research that took place before publication and objected to the idea that series were somehow thrown together. When she launched `Jets’ (at that time she was working for A & C Black) she `had a particular person in mind; that was the 7 year-old boy who preferred The A-Team to Blue Peter.’ Now she prefers to substitute Nintendo games, but the idea remains the same.
She particularly developed the idea of the recognisability of series; that in the world of designer labels the ‘collectability’ of the distinctive `Jets’ (and other series) were underestimated by reviewers and that their reputation was spread by word of mouth recommendation by the readers themselves. `Series offer an enormous comfort factor. When kids have read and enjoyed one, they know they can move on to another and be able to cope with it, and have reading success with something they will enjoy. But also there is a marvellous feeling for me that the first complete book many kids will read will be by a talented writer such as Michael Morpurgo.’
I already knew, of course, how popular and successful `Jets’ were but I was surprised to hear that they were translated into many languages and sold all over the world – yet more proof of their attraction for young readers.
Philippa Milnes-Smith, Editorial Director of Viking Children’s Books, was also sure that she was offering a quality product with their `Read Alone’ and `Kites’ series. `Many picture books require the presence of an adult. These are designed to be accessible to readers on their own.’ In defence of the quality of writing in series, she pointed out that both Mr Majeika and The Conker as Hard as a Diamond began life as series books and then made the cross-over into `mainstream’ paperback format. Like the other publishers, Viking try very hard to ensure that there is a range of subject matter and genres in their series.
All three publishers pointed to the very high sales, with figures for series titles way above the figures for single hardback titles, and with high sales figures generating good royalties there is no shortage of authors submitting manuscripts or accepting commissions. The publishers also point out that these guaranteed high sales make it easier to introduce new writers like Robin Kingsland whose first book was a `Jet’.
This is obviously good news for writers but is it necessarily good news for readers? I put this point to Chris Powling when I asked him to answer Signal’s challenge.
He was typically trenchant in his assertion that what he is offering these readers is his best possible writing. He sees no difference whatsoever in writing for series and writing stories for any other form of publishing. He rejects strongly what he calls `this curious notion that writers somehow churn these books out’; that they are on some sort of auto-pilot. Indeed, to Chris, series actually broaden the range of fiction available to readers as they offer a home to stories of a length that would previously not have been published and that would thus have been lost to the children who have since enjoyed them. He says, `One of my most successful books has been The Phantom Carwash. Now that story was with my agent for three and a half years and had been rejected by various publishers who threw up their hands in horror and said “4,000 words! It’s impossible!” Then along came `Banana Books’ and snapped it up as being exactly the right length for their series.’
Part of the attraction of series publishing, for authors, then, is that they can write stories of differing lengths and know there’s a market for them without needing to pad them out or cut them dramatically to fit mainstream demands. The stories can be the length they need to be and still get published.
For teachers and librarians the series format simply `works’. It works because the children read them; it works because they keep coming back for more; it works because they appeal across such a wide age range. The size, the length, the appearance, the subject matter and the directness of narrative all appeal to youngsters who want to read but for various reasons can’t or won’t tackle longer, more complex novels and reject all you can suggest with that ultimate adolescent put-down, `It’s boring, sir.’
Two little snapshots of series books at work will indicate some of this appeal. The Phantom Carwash is currently on loan to a boy in Year 10 who, to the best of my knowledge, has never willingly read a complete book before. Yet they don’t just work for `reluctant’ or `beginner’ readers. A girl in Year 7, who has borrowed over 50 books since September and who some time ago engaged me in a complex discussion about The Owl Service, regularly drops in to read two or three of these short books at break-time, just to pass the time.
Series books are a publishing phenomenon. They are here to stay – and possibly develop with publishers considering introducing titles where children are not the main characters to broaden the age range and also series for older readers with a thriller format.
Young readers are as varied in their needs as adults and we who provide books for them can not afford to sneer at what appeals to them. We need to provide as rich and varied a selection as possible to ensure that all our readers can gain enjoyment and success; and series titles, chosen on their merits, have a vital role to play.
Well, that’s enough of the talking heads – let the books speak for themselves. Here are a few that I particularly like for a variety of reasons and which, I hope, show the range of writing available.
Best Friends by Rachel Anderson and Shelagh McNicholas (A & C Black `Jets’, 0 7136 3361 1, £4.95) is a sequel to the delightful Jessy Runs Away (0 7136 3059 0, £4.95; Young Lions, 0 00 673293 3, £2.25 pbk), both dealing with family life with a Downs Syndrome girl. Here friendships and sisterly rivalry are sensitively handled.
Anne Fine has a number of titles in series and Stranger Danger (Hamish Hamilton `Gazelle’, 0 241 12545 6, £3.99; Puffin, 0 14 034302 4, £2.50 pbk) deals with an important issue that needs sensible handling. Joe learns his safety rules from the local bobby and then how to apply them with common sense at a grand concert.
Ghost stories are always popular and Emma Tennant’s Ghost Child (Heinemann `Banana’, 0 434 93025 3, £2.95) is a cut above most. Young Melly is condemned to another summer holiday with her grand-parents – but this year things are different as she meets the ghost of great uncle Rick, killed when a World War II pilot, but appearing to Melly as a boy of her own age in the cottage where he used to live. This one sent those tell-tale shivers up my spine.
Punning titles seem to be fashionable these days so we have Copycat (Hodder & Stoughton `Roosters’, 0 340 49577 4, £5.99) from Sheila Lavelle and Saving Grace (A & C Black `Crackers’, 0 7136 3122 8, £5.50; Mammoth, 0 7497 0294 X, £1.99 pbk) by Nick Warburton. The first is a sci-fi/ecology story in which girl/cat Amber Sunbeam from the planet Kryston arrives on earth to copy animal life in order to repopulate her polluted, but happily recovering, world. The second is a light-hearted football story in which Grace is the star goalie. A ‘big-time scout’ signs up the wrong player – a boy – and complications ensue. Loved the cool newspaper headlines as chapter headings. Shame about the price.
Staying with girls and sport, we have A Medal for Malina (Hamish Hamilton `Antelope’, 0 241 12937 0, £4.99; Puffin, 0 14 034856 5, £2.50 pbk; see also review on p. 12). This is Narinder Dhami’s first book and is a fairly predictable, but always competent, primary school Sports Day story with lively dialogue wherein John ‘Motormouth’ Parry – school bully and ace runner – is eventually bested by Malina. A lively story with a confident, athletic Asian girl as the main character.
It’s good to see so many stories coming through with Asian children in lead roles – and even better when they are by Asian authors. How can you resist a book with a title like Dadijan’s Carrot Halvah (Hamish Hamilton `Antelope’, 0 241 12457 7, £4.99)? Pratima Mitchell’s storyline of meeting relatives at Heathrow will be familiar territory for many Asian youngsters.
Nadya Smith’s two short story collections Will You Come on Wednesday? (Julia MacRae `Blackbird’, 0 86203 448 5, £4.50; Walker, 0 7445 1462 2, £2.99 pbk) and Imran’s Secret (0 86203 315 2, £3.95; Walker, 0 7445 2300 1, £2.99 pbk) have been particular favourites of mine for some time. Warm, gentle stories of life in an inner-city primary school based on the author’s teaching experience in a school not a million miles from my own. The stories feature infant children, but continue to delight well into the secondary years.
All these authors are taking their readers seriously and trying to engage them at a level beyond story that is solely for diversion and entertainment. Some of the books in series can stand with the best; hardly surprising really when it’s the same authors involved. They get considered for, and sometimes win, awards. They appear on shortlists: Jean Ure’s Spooky Cottage for the Federation of Children’s Book Groups Award; Anne Fine’s Design a Pram and Michael Morpurgo’s Colly’s Barn for the Nottingham Oak Tree Award; The Phantom Carwash for the Smarties Award. And, of course, Storm by Kevin Crossley-Holland, won the Carnegie Medal in 1985.
I leave you with one of Bernard Ashley’s `Dockside School Stories’. In Boat Girl (Julia MacRae ‘Redwings’ O 86203 445 0, £3.95; Boat Girl and Other Dockside School Stories, Walker, 0 7445 2305 2, £3.99 pbk) Kim Lung’s everyday experiences on her first school residential visit – being in the dark, hide and seek, seeing the sea – spark for her memories of stories she has overheard her father tell about his escape from Vietnam. This short book is guaranteed to move to tears anyone with an ounce of feeling. Here is Kim Lung on the first page at the parents’ meeting about the trip where she is the only pupil present as she has to act as interpreter for dad:
`Kim eased her hand away, pulled up her already pulled up socks. She had come into the row of seats first, was on the wrong side of him; and she didn’t like holding the hand with the scar on it. Her father let it drop, fingered the scar as he often did, like someone blind, reading a story in it, while Kim looked up at all the adults’ faces, feeling very out of place, very small.’
This is formula writing? Get real! ∎
Currently available `series’ fiction for the younger reader
`Tigers’ (6-9), 64pp, £4.99
A & C Black
`Bugs’ (5-7), 28pp, £3.95
`Buttons’ (5-7), 48pp, £4.95
`Comets’ (7-11), 64/96pp, £5.50
`Crackers’ (7-11), 64/96pp, £5.50
`Jets’ in hardback (6-9), 64pp, £4.95
`Blackie Bears’ (6+), 48pp, £3.50
`Snappers’ (8-10), 96pp, £6.50
`Story Factory’ (6-8), 80pp, £5.50
`Thriller Firsts’ (8-10), 96pp, £6.50
`Toppers’ (5-8), 48pp, £2.50
`Antelopes’ (6-9), 96pp, £4.99
Cartwheels’ (4-8), 32pp, £4.99
`Gazelles’ (5-8), 48pp, £3.99
`Jets’ in paperback (6-9), 64pp £1.99-£2.99
`Banana Books’ (7-9), 48pp, £3.99
‘Superchamps’ (8-11), 72pp, £3.95
Hodder & Stoughton
`Cheetahs’ (7-9), 80pp, £4.95-£5.99
`Hedgehogs’ (5-7), 32pp, £4.95-£5.99
`Roosters’ now called `Ganders’ (6-8), 44pp, £4.95-£5.99
`Blackbirds’ and `Redwings’, see below under Walker
`Storybooks’ (7-10), 64pp, £2.95
`Eagle Books’ (8-12), 64-176pp, £3.50-£6.95
`Flippers’ (5-8), 64pp, £4.99 hbk, £2.99 pbk
Simon & Schuster
`Storybooks’ (6+), 48pp, £7.99 hbk, £3.50 pbk
`Kites’ (7+), 80/96pp, £5.50
`Read Alones’ (4-8), 80/96pp, £4.99
`Walker Doubles’ (7-10), 96pp, £2.99 pbk (including many Blackbirds’ and Redwings’)
Steve Rosson is Head of Library Resources at Moseley School, Birmingham.