There is a difference between writing a trilogy and writing a series of 10 books. There is perhaps an even greater distance between writing a series of 10 books and a series of 100. Despite the huge effort it takes to imagine a series that lasts that many books, some of the most popular children’s fiction of the 1980’s and 1990’s were parts of these ‘superseries’.
On of the best examples of this phenomenon was The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin. The books follow a group of friends who run a babysitting business in their hometown. The books rotate which main character narrates the story, which allows the series to deal with a breadth of problems such as divorce, illness, peer conflicts, etc. without it being too melodramatic. Despite the simplicity of the conceit (or perhaps because of it), the series was immensely popular. Between 1986-2000 , 213 books had been published in the series. Together these novels sold over 176 million copies.
And The Baby-Sitters Club wasn’t alone in its success; the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal featured 603 books published between 1983-2003; Goosebumps by R.L. Stine had 62 books published between 1992-1997; and Animorphs by K.A. Applegate released 54 books between 1996-2001.
What made these series such a success? Why did kids from the late 80’s and early 90’s rush out to the bookstore in the hope of finding the next title in a superseries?
Many of these series share structural and stylistic elements. They are typically written in a first person point of view. Though a series may have one or two main characters leave over its run, there is a standard cast that readers can grow to know, love, and identify with, and the books rotate narrative duties between these characters. Despite belonging to these series, most of these novels can be read alone. For example, a reader does not have to read Sweet Valley High books 1-87 in order to enjoy Sweet Valley High 123: Elizabeth’s Rival. Of course the publishers encourage readers to collect all of the books, but it isn’t necessary. That allows readers to jump in and out of a series.
Goosebumps differs in that it does not follow a single cast. Instead, new characters who have to handle surreal and scary events appear in each book. Like the other series, however, Goosebumps books are typically written in first person point of view, and they also do not require that a reader finds all of the books chronologically.
All of these facets combine to make successful series of books, ones that readers return to again and again no matter how many individual titles an author published.
Though series for middle readers still exist, most of them haven’t reached the number of books that the older superseries did. It may simply be that these new series haven’t had time to grow yet, or it could be that readers (and publishers) are less interested in creating and maintaining superseries. Purchasing obscene numbers of books from a single series was, I believe, much more tempting when physical bookstores thrived. It is harder to sell people on a large series when people are buying the books online. Despite current trends, superseries may make a comeback. Sweet Valley High has begun publishing a new set of books, and new authors are always on the horizon.
If you have any thoughts about superseries or know of any big ones from the last 30 years that I have forgotten, feel free to share them. I know that I haven’t even begun to think about Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys, and they were some of the forefathers of more recent superseries. I’m sure I’m overlooking others as well.
Image Attribution: Matthew Lesh, “Collection of Animorphs, 2009.