Intended primarily for female readers, woman series books are novels that feature the same character(s) or premise in a number of related but individual stories.
A series may contain as few as three volumes or as many as a hundred or more. Although most are linked by continuing characters, a series may also be unified by genre (such as mystery or romance), setting, or theme, and the books are usually packaged in a uniform size and design. Some series are mass-produced and formulaic, such as the Nancy Drew mysteries; others are more complex and literary, such as the Anne of Green Gables series. Some feature characters who rarely age or change; others follow the protagonist(s) from youth to maturity, often ending when the main character reaches such a rite of passage to adulthood as graduation, marriage, or a first job. Although their subject matter, settings, tones, literary quality, and ideologies vary widely, all girls’ series deal in some way with issues of gender definition, illustrating acceptable and unacceptable behavior for girls in a given time and culture.
Nineteenth-Century Series Books
Series fiction has been most popular in the United States, where the first continuing-character series for girls began in 1841 with Jacob Abbott’s Cousin Lucy stories. Typical of many early- and mid-nineteenth-century series, the Lucy books offered instruction in middle-class mores and Protestant moral virtues; they were also the first example of what became a common form of girls’ series-the “tot” story, which focuses on a very young child whose mild adventures are tailored to audiences of the same age. The six Cousin Lucy titles established a pattern of location that was often repeated in girls’ series: early volumes, such as Cousin Lucy at Study, show the protagonist(s) in such domestic situations as home and school, whereas later volumes, such as Cousin Lucy Among the Mountains, reflect more public settings and experiences. Although a few girls’ series began in the 1850s, it was the 1860s and 1870s that fully established the popularity of the form. More than fifty new series, many linked by theme and published by religious presses, began during these decades. Among the most widely read authors of this period was Rebecca Clarke, who wrote as “Sophie May.” Her first and most successful series, Little Prudy, began in 1863. Intended for elementary-age readers, the episodic stories featured Prudy Parlin, age 3 at the start of the series. Sophie May used characters from the Parlin family to create other successful series, including Dottie Dimple (1868-1869) and Little Prudy’s Children (1894-1901). While May’s books contained the moral and other lessons typical of juvenile fiction of the time, her characters were often more lively and realistic than those featured in other didactic literature. Series for older girls also gained popularity as the nineteenth century advanced. Two that remained in print into the twentieth century were Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s Gypsy Breynton series (1867-1868) and the What Katy Did books (1872-1891) by “Susan Coolidge” (pseudonym of Sarah Chauncey Woolsey). The main characters, Jemima “Gypsy” Breynton and Katy Carr, illustrate some of the gender issues that inform many girls’ series. Contrary to modern stereotypes of Victorian-era heroines, neither Gypsy nor Katy is passive or demure. Instead, each represents a common nineteenth-century fictional type: the energetic girl who actively tests out gender codes. In both cases, the characters are ultimately socialized into the prevailing gender roles of the white middle class; that is, they come to accept the public and domestic restraints imposed on “good” girls. Yet importantly, both series insist that part of what it means to be properly “womanly” is to be unafraid and independent, albeit in carefully circumscribed, nonmasculine ways.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Protestant Christianity remained an important thematic influence in most girls’ series. One of the longest-lived and best-selling nineteenth-century series was overtly evangelical. Martha Finley’s Elsie books (1868-1905) trace the life of Elsie Dinsmore, a saintly, submissive Southern heiress whose faith sustains her during her lonely, half-orphaned childhood on a rich antebellum plantation, through her girlhood, marriage, and widowhood, and into a happy old age as a much loved great-grandmother. Although often criticized for their melodrama, racism,
and parochialism, the Elsie books nonetheless demonstrate the emotional power of sentimental fiction.
Twentieth-Century Series Books
By the end of the nineteenth century, explicit religion and moral didacticism were on the wane in girls’ series fiction-at the same time that the number of series waxed dramatically. In the 1890s, twenty new girls’ series debuted in the United States; between 1900 and 1920, more than 150 new series appeared. The range of periods, themes, and settings was vast. There were historical series, travel series, tot series, school and college series, adventure series, war service series; series about Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls; and series set in the West, the South, and New England.
Reflecting both an increasingly mobile society and shifting gender and class roles, more and more books after the turn of the century focused on girls as adventurers who moved far beyond family and domestic settings. There were series titled Motor Girls (1910-1917), Motor Maids (1911-1914), Automobile Girls (1910-1913), Girl Aviators (1911-1912), Ranch Girls (1911-1924), and Outdoor Girls (1913-1933). Characters traveled all over the United States and the world; during World War I, many served in France as nurses and ambulance drivers in series titled Khaki Girls (1918-1920) and Grace Harlowe Overseas (1920). As with earlier books, the series of the early twentieth century reflected, reinforced, challenged, and helped create cultural definitions of gender, class, race, and sexual identity.
Nancy Drew and Series Mysteries
Book production overall slowed during the Depression, but even in the 1930s, more than sixty new girls’ series began, including some, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (1932-1943), that would become literary classics. Probably the best-known series from the 1930s featured a character who stands as an icon of the independent, intrepid girl leader: Nancy Drew. The series began in 1930, continued through multiple revisions and spin-offs, and was still being published in 2007. Nancy was the invention of the prolific Edward Stratemeyer, creator of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He produced many girls’ series by preparing character descriptions and plot outlines that were expanded by ghostwriters into finished novels. Although the Nancy Drew series was often disdained by teachers and librarians, it was enormously popular with readers, who liked the predictable plots, intriguing mysteries, and streamlined characters. Nancy herself was a fairly one-dimensional paragon of cleverness, skill, and bravery. Yet instead of making her seem distant and unapproachable, her perfections helped account for the series’ success. A more realistic character, one more fully developed and individualized, might not have appealed to as wide a range of readers; girls would have found it more difficult to adapt her traits to themselves.
Another important reason for the success of Nancy Drew is genre: the books are mysteries, a form that dominated girls’ series in the 1930s and later. After Nancy Drew became a best seller, the Stratemeyer Syndicate created other mystery series, among them the Dana Girls (1934-1979) and Kay Tracey (1934-1942); additional mysteries included the Judy Bolton books (1932-1967) by Margaret Sutton and the Trixie Belden series (1948-1986), begun by Julie Campbell Tatham and continued by ghostwriters using the pseudonym Kathryn Kenny. Even the career and romance series of the 1950s and later often contained mysteries as well. Their appeal is clear: not only do puzzles provide a ready-made plot structure, but the solutions also offer a comforting sense of order andreason, giving readers a world in which even the most confusing conundrums have answers. Mystery series remained perennially popular, but cultural changes after World War II brought about corresponding changes in girls’ fiction. The social and gender conservatism of the 1950s supported a market for domestic series that focused on family and on heterosexual romance; popular authors of such books included Janet Lambert and Anne Emery. When characters had careers, they tended, like nurse Cherry Ames (1943-1968), to hold traditionally female jobs. In general, series remained white and middle class. As in earlier years, the few Jewish, nonwhite, or working-class characters who did appear served primarily as villains, clowns, or grateful recipients of charitable largesse. A few exceptions existed, however. Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind series (1951-1978), for example, is about an urban Jewish family.
Contemporary Series. The popularity of series books as a whole declined in the 1970s but, as the Girls’ Series Book Checklist points out, the format underwent a renaissance in the late 1970s, when publishers began increasingly to produce children’s books as paperback originals. Hundreds of new series appeared, most linked by character, but also by location, format, or theme. Readers’ interest in formulaic stories about romances and friendships continued into the 1980s and 1990s, as demonstrated by the phenomenal success of creator Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High books (1983-2003) and their many spin-offs. As in the culture at large, sex (at least heterosexual sex) was treated increasingly openly in girls’ series after the 1970s, and girls’ series tended to follow the same trends prevalent in adult fiction. In the 2000s, for instance, the adult vogue for “chick lit” led to such girls’ series as Gossip Girls (2002-), which combined romance and shopping with sex, alcohol, and soap-operatic tales of treachery and jealousy. Literary series such as Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy trilogy (1964-1978) and Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik (1979-1995) continued to be published, as did series for younger girls. Popular protagonists for younger girls included Beverly Cleary’s brash but lovable Ramona Quimby (1968-1999) and Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones (1992-). Ann Martin’s best-selling Baby-sitters Club (1986-2000) featured girls of middle-school age.
As the twentieth century neared its close, some series began to include more racial and ethnic diversity, but the characters were usually displaced into the past, and the series themselves often engendered controversy. The American Girls collection of historical fiction for younger girls included series about an African American (“Addy”; 1994), a Hispanic (“Josefina”; 1997-1998), and a Native American (“Kaya”; 2002). Some critics, though, find these books inauthentic. The Dear America stories (1996-2004), linked by the format of historical diaries, featured characters of varied social class and race, with volumes contributed by such significant authors as Newbery Medal-winner Karen Hesse and African American writer Patricia McKissack. The series has been controversial, however, with some Native American critics, for example, objecting to the racial messages of Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart Is on the Ground (1999).
The sheer number of series by U.S. authors can obscure the fact that girls’ series existed in other Anglo countries, too. In England, the girls’ school story, with its lessons about gender and class, dominated the early decades of the twentieth century; series such as Elsie J. Oxenham’s Abbey Girls (1914-1949) and Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School (1925-1970) found large readerships. Other genres were popular as well. Canadian writers also produced girls’ series; probably the one best known in the United States is Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908-1939). Reflecting the Cinderella plot popular in many girls’ books, this series follows the orphaned Anne Shirley from her adoption as a child through her years as a teacher, and on to a happy marriage and motherhood.
For the most part, girls’ series fiction both consciously and subconsciously informs readers what it means to be female in Anglo cultures-particularly what it means to be a female who is white, middle class, and Christian. Because much of the series’ appeal comes from the comfort of their familiar characters coupled with often exciting adventures, the durability of the form is unsurprising.