Series Yes, Series No: Part I

I started first grade when I was five years old, and it was in first grade that I learned to read and that I was first introduced to the concept of a series of books. Up until that time, the only books I was familiar with were picture books that my mother or grandfather read to me, and none of these were series books.

The series I was introduced to were the Dick and Jane readers, published by Scott Foresman, and I must say, I was underwhelmed. Dick bored me. Jane bored me. Sally bored me. Spot was fun. The series was not. I honestly think that, if I thought about series at all (probably not), it was with the intention of avoiding them, on the assumption that they would all be like Dick and Jane.

But then came third grade and the bookmobile! Wow! I could stand in line with other kids and we could enter the bookmobile three at a time and we could choose three books each if we wanted to. And I chose a book titled The Black Stallion, by Waltur Farley. And that changed my entire attitude toward books in series.

Because now I wanted to know what happened next to Alec and the Black. I needed to know. I needed to know faster than the bookmobile could supply me with books, and so my mother took me to a bookstore and I bought the next book in the Black Stallion series. Three days later, I bought the next. (My mother was very generous when it came to keeping me supplied with books.) And so on . . . until I caught up with Walter Farley’s writing and had to wait for the next book in the series to come out.

Agony.

I was a fan and I wanted another book. I needed another book. I needed the story to go on and on and on and never end, always another adventure on the horizon. I wrote Walter Farley a fan letter. It’s possible that I urged him to hurry with the next book in the series. Only now, as an adult and a writer, do I realize how very difficult it is to produce a book a year. What’s good for fans is not necessarily good for writers.

unknownWalter Farley may have known before, during, or immediately after writing The Black Stallion that he would write a sequel. That book was The Black Stallion Returns. Two books do not make a series. That takes three books.

A sequel continues the story or expands on the theme of an earlier work. The Black Stallion Returns was clearly a sequel to the first book — the story continued from where it had left off. One of the reasons people love series is that they love to participate in the lives of other characters, be they heroes or villains — and they love to participate in these lives in a chronological, cause-and-effect order.

What’s good for fans (more books in the series they love) may not be good for the writer. I suspect that Walter Farley felt the need of a break from Alec Ramsey and his Arab stallion, because after writing a third book (a series!) titled Son of the Black Stallion, he wrote a fourth book about a boy and a horse, titled The Island Stallion. This was not part of the Black Stallion series. It was totally separate . . . although it eventually became its own series and it eventually linked up with the Black Stallion series when the two boy heroes met. The point is, I believe the writer needed a break from writing about the same people or the same horses all the time.

Today we’re inundated with series in fiction and even in nonfiction. Publishers like series because they sell more books. Readers like series because they get to spend more time with the characters they love.
But there was a time when writers didn’t automatically jump at the thought of writing a series of books. Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan, was thrilled that his first Chan novel, The House Without a Key, became a big hit. He was thrilled that the public clamored for more, More, MORE adventures of Charlie Chan. But Biggers wasn’t sure whether or not he should write a second book about Chan. He did feel that to write such a book would be financially wise. Up until the Chan novels, he had never written a sequel to any of his novels, and he felt he could probably make more money writing a series.

Unknown-1What worried Biggers was this: he believed that as soon as he wrote a sequel, he would have taken a step down a road from which there was no going back, because both his publisher and his public would demand nothing but Chan novels from him. This turned out to be absolutely correct: Biggers’ publisher wanted nothing but Chan novels, as did his public. Biggers did write a sequel (The Chinese Parrot) to the first Chan book, but as he lamented to his editor, “He who mounts a tiger cannot dismount.”

The public went crazy about Chan novels during the 1920s and early 1930s. Biggers received sackloads of fan mail, and his fans did not stop at praising him and telling him they wanted another Chan novel — they told him what the plot should be. Basically, they wanted Chan to take a trip from Hawaii to London to meet up with Inspector Duff, who had appeared in the third Chan book, Behind That Curtain.

These suggestions as to the plot of his fourth novel irritated Biggers. He wrote several letters to his editor complaining about the suggestions. In his fourth Chan novel, The Black Camel, Chan was in Hawaii and Inspector Duff was not present. I think Biggers was saying Phooey to the plot suggestions coming in from his millions of fans around the world. (The books were translated into 23 different languages.)

But.

What his fans suggested must have made an impression on Biggers, and he ended up using their suggestions — though not in the way they suggested them. In the fifth Chan book, Charlie Chan Carries On, Chan does not go to London. (Too bad, fans!) But a murderer does go to London. That murderer is on an around-the-world cruise. He murders somebody on the ship while it’s in London. And so Inspector Duff, who cannot solve the crime before the ship leaves, joins the passengers on their cruise. The murderer strikes again in Italy, but, again, Duff can’t determine who the murderer is.

Finally, halfway through the book, the cruise reaches Hawaii. So instead of Chan going to London to meet Duff, it’s Duff who comes to Hawaii to meet Chan. What the fans really wanted was a reunion of Chan and Duff, and Biggers gave them that, but in his own way. And I’m glad he did, because the fifth novel is delightful. Biggers managed to keep his hero out of the book for half its length, bring him in at a critical moment, and continue the exciting story of the around-the-world cruise.

As one who loves reading mystery series, but also as one who understands that authors need breathing space and creative room, I totally admire the way Biggers carried on his Chan series.

________________

Barbara Gregorich keeps wanting to make her two Proof novels into a series, but keeps getting waylaid by other books that demand to be written.

10 thoughts on “Series Yes, Series No: Part I

  1. Barbara, a nice analysis of Biggers’ thinking and rational for what he wrote. I read that from 1914 to 1925, while in NY, he and Eleanor took frequent trips to Europe. Perhaps that 5th novel also satisfied his own desire to write the quintessential British mystery, as well as satisfying his demanding public. Buona Pasqua!

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  2. Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. says:

    Barbara,thanks for mentioning the Dick and Jane books. I had them, too.Today I look back on them as pedagogical tools, and I think they served that purpose well, i.e. introducing children to vocabulary and syntax. In my ESL teaching, I mention them with nostalgia and paraphrase them as a way of showing how people learn to read their native language. Each idea is a complete sentence. There are no clauses, no stringing together of ideas. That comes later, when we are older and more sophisticated; and so it is when we move from simple sentences to more complex ones as we are learning a foreign language.

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  3. What you say is true, Kit, and I really appreciate your saying it because it makes me look at the Dick and Jane books in a better light. As a kid, I wanted more action, more plot, something not quite so babyish. But as you say, the books introduced vocabulary and syntax. Perhaps kids who learned to read with Dick and Jane also acquired a very strong grasp of Subject-Verb and Subject-Verb-Object sentence structure.

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    • Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. says:

      Thanks very much for your kind, discerning reply, Barbara. That’s exactly what I think. I don’t remember if I had a Dick and Jane book in kindergarten (1949-1950), but I certainly read one in first grade (1950-1951). i remember that the dog’s name was Spot and the cat’s name was Puff, but who was Sally? You referred to her in your initial post.

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  4. Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. says:

    Let me illustrate how I relate Dick and Jane books to teaching English as a second language to foreign adults:
    Intermediate grammar: The man who cuts my hair is from Korea.
    Beginning grammar (Dick and Jane): The man is from Korea. He cuts my hair.
    Intermediate grammar: The rain had stopped by the time I got home.
    Beginning grammar (Dick and Jane): The rain stopped. Then I got home.
    Intermediate grammar: Dick and Jane have a dog whose name is Spot and a cat whose name is Puff.
    Beginning grammar (Dick and Jane): Dick and Jane have a dog. His (Its) name is Spot. They have a cat. Her (Its) name is Puff.

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  5. Harrington E. Crissey, Jr. says:

    Thanks for your prompt answer to my question, Barbara. Do you have the Dick and Jane books within easy reach at home? I remember how richly colored the illustrations were.

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