Series books in Children’s Literature
Wilma Kuhlman, Ph.D.
As I thought through appropriate themes for this issue, I reflected on the affection "my" library patrons at Girls, Inc. have for some series books. I also remembered my oldest grandson's (he was then a young reader) insightful comment when I questioned his almost exclusive reading of Boxcar Children books. His response, "They aren't great books, but I learned to become a reader with those books." I've researched a bit, and I believe he had some insight. There are reasons that series books are valid for young readers, not the least of which is the consistency of characters from one book to the next. Add graphic novel characteristics, and you have winners, in my experience. I will discuss some of the books that consistently leave the library at Girls, Inc. almost as quickly as they come in, and look at the latest publications in the series to share.
A series that I only recently encountered is Dork Diaries. Other librarians agree to their popularity. Dork diaries: Tales from a NOT-SO- Friendly Frenemy by Rachel Renee Russell, published by Simon & Schuster, 2016 is the most recent in the series. The cover has a note saying that Dork Diaries is the #1 New York Times Bestselling Series. The newest book finds our protagonist, Nikki, spending a week in an exclusive school as part of her school's student exchange program. Nikki's major antagonist, MacKenzie, attends that school and they have both clashes and cooperation - thus the frenemy. Written in the diary format with words crossed out and current young teen slang, she uses terms like BFF, OMG, and emojis to show approval or disapproval. The format of pencil drawn illustrations fits a diary, but also becomes a bit like a graphic novel. However, the text is more than would be the case in a typical graphic novel. The plot has common early teen social issues to the extreme. Because readers get Nikki's thoughts that aren't always spoken aloud, the drama is huge! The accusations from her frenemy nearly cost her a special spot on a Paris trip, but a local TV station shows up at the right time. Interesting read, and I can see the draw to upper elementary and middle school girls. After ten books, the plot and pictures aren't too new, and that makes it very readable. I find that girls do move on to more complex reads.
No one is likely to be surprised to see Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty series on the list of favorites, and seeing the title of Bad Kitty Takes the Test (Roaring Book Press, 2017), in light of all the testing students face, I was intrigued. It seems Kitty has done bad things once too often and must pass a test to continue to be confirmed as a cat. He goes to the testing place to get his instruction on being a cat before he takes the 14 pre-tests to prepare for the final test. (Does that sound a bit familiar?) There are numerous puns and plays on words that actually require some sophisticated knowledge to fully understand. For instance, one of the supposed cats who comes for the test is a chicken with some cat ears attached. The teacher welcomes "Mittens" with, "I hope you didn't have any trouble crossing the road to get here." While I would classify Bad Kitty books as basically graphic novels, the conversation bubbles and language are fairly lengthy and sophisticated. Teachers would enjoy the innuendos about testing in general and can use the popular books for puns, idioms, and other plays on words. I totally enjoyed the book.
This article couldn't be complete without including the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. The 2016 Amulet publication is titled Double Down, which I never really connected to the events of the book. As is true of Jeff Kinney's other books, Gregg is a specialist at finding different ways to get into trouble. Halloween candy is a recurring theme and shows up as corn candy that Gregg wins for his balloon going the furthest and being returned, and gummy worms that he finds hidden in his house. Somehow the pet pig manages to eat the majority of the candy, even though it makes him very sick. But those are just a couple of the crazy events that cause problems. Gregg is grounded so many times, one wonders how he has time for anything else. Gregg's obsession with the Spinetickler's book series by I.M. Spooky indicate Kinney's own sense of humor with his books’ popularity. He includes a parent protest about the books, possibly referencing that Wimpy Kid books are sometimes challenged because of objections to inclusion of body parts and body functions that parents don't appreciate. While considered graphic novels by some, Wimpy Kid books seem to have enough reading in them to support young readers' literacy growth. Even with a male protagonist, these books are very popular at Girls, Inc.
I "read" Jennifer L. and Matthew Holms' most recent Babymouse book Babymouse Goes for the Gold (Random House, 2016) because of the great popularity of these graphic novels with young readers. As was true when I was involved in Children's Choices, Babymouse books are popular with many early readers. I do find that some sophistication is necessary to understand these books. The graphics are mandatory for understanding the happenings, and also for discerning that the captions in squares hold comments of someone/thing outside Babymouse's mind. Babymouse joins a swim team after urging from her mother to be more active. It's not a smooth transition for our protagonist, and as is her classic MO, she has major problems and sees strange creatures in the water. While the title implies that she aims to win a gold medal, that is never close to happening. The book is full of her drama - as is typical of the series. While I don't find the actual reading to be very engaging, the artwork is very entertaining and worth the time in class to analyze illustrations for the subtleties of meaning. Very entertaining.
Looking forward to new and potentially popular graphic novel series, I read the #1 series book in Judd Winick's HiLo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth first published in 2015 by Random House. It fits the MRC writing contest prompt very well, as HiLo is actually a robot, with young boy physical characteristics. HiLo lands on earth while escaping the nasty monster, Razorwark, who wants to destroy him as well as all of earth and its inhabitants. Our earthling school student, D.J., finds HiLo and takes him home. Kids will love it when HiLo eats a lot of food and is totally delighted when he burps. He gets excited about the chance to burp again. D.J. needs to get him clothes and takes him to school where D. J. is joined by his good friend, Gina, who has just moved back to town. Together D.J. and Gina adventure with HiLo as he battles a monster, totally comes apart and learns he's actually a robot. After he manages to put himself together again, the adventure continues. The writing and artwork sync together to make a delightful read that I predict will gain in popularity. Book #2 HiLo Saves the Whole Wide World was published in 2016 and #3 HiLo: The Great Big Boom is due out in February of 2017. I can see both girls and boys being eager to read books in this series. Recommended reader ages are 8 – 12 or 3rd – 7th grade, which seems reasonable to me.
What’s your favorite series, for kids or for yourself? I’ve been avoiding series lately, but I did like The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. That could be a fun conversation!