books · writing

The Making of a Young Adult Superseries

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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.

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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.

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23 thoughts on “The Making of a Young Adult Superseries

  1. I had no idea the sheer number of books in each of those series. It doesn’t seem possible! This is interesting though, because I think we’ve seen these trends in other media as well. TV has had its superseries, from sitcoms like Seinfeld or Cheers to procedurals like the Law & Order or CSI families of shows. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is also the first superseries in major cinema, and Disney looks to repeat this success with Star Wars, just as Warner Bros hopes to elevate the DC comic universe.

    I wonder if these are one-time or cyclical trends? After the recent wave of young adult fiction in with series like Harry Potter, maybe we’ll see another slew of superseries in novels.

    Very thought-provoking post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are some great points, Steve. I had completely forgotten about other formats even though I feel like the Law & Order franchise has existed for practically my entire life. I was trying to find a pattern in when these superseries occur as well and couldn’t quite manage it, but if you come up with a theory, you’ll have to let me know.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hmm, that’s an interesting question. Off the cuff I’d say a good superseries needs a few aspects:
        – Multiple characters engaging enough to alternately serve as the “lead”
        – A distinct style or framework that helps the creator mold different individual stories within it
        – and either a broader Umbrella Storyarc to connect the stories or a broad-stroke theme that ties the various subplots together

        As for when this occurs, I’m not sure how to project that. It’s like a social media post or a video going viral – sometimes it’s just the perfect storm

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  2. I was a fan of a few of those series growing up! I remember anxiously awaiting for the newest Babysitters Club book to come out, but there were less than seventy when I moved on – I had no idea they went on so long!

    There are a few adult series (mystery, detective) that I haphazardly follow, none that I absolutely HAVE to read, but strangely enough, I picked up a YA book on a whim at a library book sale for a quarter (Pretty Little Liars), and found myself HAVING to read the next 17 books – even though the series lost steam and should have been 1/3-1/2 as long and I didn’t like any of the characters. Seriously contemplating the psychology behind it – the entire experience was just so strange, like an actual addiction – that there seems like there should be a scientific reason, like a chemical released in the brain when reading about adolescents vs adults. (Or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse for spending so much time on them.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People keep saying that Pretty Little Liars is addictive, but I’ve never picked one up before. Maybe I should. After all, it is getting cold in the northern hemisphere, and I can always use another excuse to curl up with a book. I do wonder if books about teens are more emotionally immediate. Since adolescents are experiencing fairly new emotions, it may be that the reader gets some of that ‘newness’ as well.

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  3. As a young reader, I really liked to read series. I preferred recurring characters in novel situations, trying to imagine what it was like for the protagonist(s) to live through their adventures. Growing up in Germany, series like Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators (NOT written by Hitchcock), or Enid Blyton’s multiple series were very popular. I usually checked them out from the local library, but also owned some. I always looked forward to returning to the characters.

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  4. Oh man! This is amazing! The amount of effort, time, and dedication that goes into something like this has to be insane. I can barely finish writing one book. :p Though, many of these books I think lean towards middle grade or shorter YA. So they’re not like 300+ pages like YA is nowadays.

    That being said, one of my favorite superseries (at least I think it’s a super series) would be Magic Tree House. Each book followed a sister and brother on adventures to amazingly fantastical places. It was always a treat to read and no doubt inspired my love of traveling. I don’t think I have the books anymore, but I cherished them when I was younger. I was always reading them and wanting to buy more from the school book sale. :p (Oh man Scholastic book sales! Those were the days!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right about most of the series above being geared towards middle schoolers, I think. I recently was going through a box of books from my youth and was surprised by their font sizes and numbers of pages. When you’re young, the transition from different ‘levels’ of books is so seamless that you don’t notice it, but books for 10 year olds are very different from books for 16 year olds.

      …And now I want my office to host a Scholastic book sale. They might be up for it. I’ll just have to do some convincing.

      Liked by 1 person

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