It is a sad, but well-known fact that we begin to lose readers in the middle grades. Why? By fourth or fifth grade, the demands across the school curriculum expand exponentially with far more required reading in science and social studies, in particular. More challenging content vocabulary and longer literary works require more reading expertise, too. Add to that the extra-curricular activities that begin to become more prominent—like competitive sports, learning a musical instrument, etc. Plus young people have more leisure activity options like video games, scouting, etc. Put that all together and you begin to see why reading may take a back seat for many young people. How do we keep their reading momentum going? By offering them choices, of course.
Savvy librarians, teachers, parents, and grandparents already know the secret to growing readers: give kids the books they want, not the books we think they need. And for some young people, this may mean choices that we wouldn't normally consider; nonfiction over novels, audiobooks over print books, graphic novels instead of traditional novels. And many, many readers enjoy series books featuring favorite characters in adventure after adventure in shorter, readable formats.
Series books for young people have been popular for over 100 years, and the continuing appeal to young audiences of today is undeniable. Whether it's the long-running Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, or Boxcar Children series, young readers enjoy the familiarity of reading about the same characters in each story. Series books meet an important need for the developing reader. They may be somewhat predictable, but they provide a structure and instant context that help build reading fluency. Much like adults' enjoyment of soap operas or binge-watching favorite television programs, young readers find the series books satisfying, if formulaic. Ross (2011) found that "Despite the concerns educators, librarians, and parents voice over children's active and abiding interest in what adults consider junk food for the mind, series books commonly provide the newly literate with compelling stories and fast-paced reading experience that enable them to become fluent readers. In fact, many well-known authors admit that they were avid readers of series books as children."
Series books have enormous appeal, even if they may never win any literary awards for writing. And for adults who are worried that young readers who consume quantities of series books won't read more literary works, Greenlee, Monson, and Taylor (1996) found that "Students like both kinds of books, and that reading series books does not interfere with their appreciation for literature of higher quality." In fact, series books can even have social-emotional benefits. In her study of young readers in Singapore, Sally Ann Jones (2015) found that "children's voluntary reading of series books served the dual purposes of enabling their membership of the peer group through culturated reading and the independent development of their reading skills and motivation for reading." Not only did students improve their reading skills by reading widely in series books, but they became part of a social group through their common reading.
Over time, various literary characters have become so popular that the authors who created them have continued their stories in additional novels. These literary sequels or "series" can be very satisfying reading, too. Check out the continuing adventures of these timeless characters created by Newbery medal and honor authors:
- Alice (by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor)
- Anastasia (by Lois Lowry)
- Brian (by Gary Paulsen)
- Cammy (by Virginia Hamilton)
- Joey Pigza (by Jack Gantos)
- Pacy Lin (by Grace Lin)
- Ramona Quimby (by Beverly Cleary)
- Shabanu (by Suzanne Fisher Staples)
- Teddy and Bobby (by Laurence Yep)
Studies of children's preferences reveal their penchant for stories about friends and friendship and most series books definitely fit that bill. Situations are often familiar and children can relate to them. They live vicariously through the characters as they deal with the pressures of growing up. These series books are particularly popular with children moving from reading picture books to novels:
- Amber Brown (Paula Danziger)
- Bink & Gollie (Kate DiCamillo)
- Calvin Coconut (Graham Salisbury)
- Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey)
- Charlie Joe Jackson (Tommy Greenwald)
- Clarice Bean (Lauren Child)
- Clementine (Sara Pennypacker)
- Creature from My Closet (Obert Skye)
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney)
- Dork Diaries (Rachel Renée Russell)
- Hank Zipzer (Henry Winkler)
- Ivy and Bean (Annie Barrows)
- Judy Moody and Stink (Megan McDonald)
- Junie B. Jones (Barbara Park)
- Justin Case (Rachel Vail)
- Marvin Redpost (Louis Sachar)
- Millicent Min (Lisa Yee)
- My Life (Janet Tashjian)
- Ruby Lu and Alvin Ho (Lenore Look)
- Sam and Gooney Bird (Lois Lowry)
Plus, Cyndi Giorgis offers these additional titles in her list of "Kid's Favorite Series Books" from her recent revision of Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook:
- Big Nate (Lincoln Peirce)
- Jasmine Toguchi (Debbi Michiko Florence)
- Mac B, Kid Spy (Mac Barnett)
Finally, favorite classic series books are also now appearing in graphic novel format, such as the enormously popular Babysitter's Club, now a graphic novel series. And of course there are many memorable characters whose adventures are serialized in their own original graphic novel series, such as the Lunch Lady series by Jarrett Krosoczka. And for readers who prefer fantasy or historical fiction, there are many beloved series books to recommend in these genres as well. Whatever their interests, encourage young readers to give series books a chance and then don't judge them when they do. We all love it when a book is engaging, fast-moving, and satisfying.
Giorgis, Cyndi, ed. Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook 8th Edition. Penguin Books, 2019.
Greenlee, Adele A., Dianne L. Monson and Barbara M. Taylor. "The Lure of Series Books: Does It Affect Appreciation for Recommended Literature?"
Jones, Sally Ann. "Children Reading Series Books: Ways into Peer Culture and Reading Development." Studies in Culture and Education 22, no. 3 (2015).
Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. "Dime Novels and Series Books." In The Handbook of Research on Children's and Young Adult Literature edited by Shelby Wolf, Karen Coats, Patricia A. Enciso, and Christine Jenkins. Routledge, 2011.