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.


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.)


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.

The Fox on the Box

FoxOne of my most exciting and rewarding writing experiences occurred thirty years ago, when I worked as a freelance writer-editor for School Zone Publishing Company. After I wrote many 32-page activity books for School Zone, I was asked to help develop a Start to Read series of ten books, each full-color, each 16 pages long. And each with a strong story. One other requirement: the total word count had to be approximately 50-100 words a book.

Was I daunted?


I dove into the assignment with enthusiasm. Perhaps, having been subjected to the Dick and Jane books when learning to read, I was thinking I would write a story with, well, story. A hero who wants something and faces obstacles in getting it. Conflict! Climax! Resolution.

In 50 words.


it's magicSo I plunged into the mission, feeling my way. The first story I wrote was Up Went the Goat, about a goat who climbs a mountain, wreaks havoc at a camp site, then scampers back down the mountain. That took seven sentences totaling 38 words. Of course each picture book is a collaboration between the words, which tell part of the story, and the illustrations, which also tell part of the story. Words and pictures together tell the full story. Up Went the Goat was illustrated by Robert Masheris.

Emboldened, I wrote another book about a creature wreaking havoc: a fox who is most inconsiderate of a box. The Fox on the Box was told in six sentences totaling 36 words. This story was also illustrated by Robert Masheris.

From there I went on to longer books in the series, such as Sue Likes Blue, a whopping 131 words. The books were highly popular and are still available today, though mainly in ebook format. I still receive occasional fan mail from 5- and 6-year-olds about the books. In fact, I receive fan mail from 35-year-old parents who remember that the very first book they ever read was one of the Start to Read books I wrote — and now their children are learning to read using the same book. This is awesome to me: to know that books I wrote so long ago still live in the hearts of those who read them.

Autographing Start to Read Books, San Francisco, 1984

Autographing Start to Read Books, San Francisco, 1984

In addition to writing children’s books, I write for adults. In baseball circles, I’m known as the author of Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball and/or the author of She’s on First. In mystery circles I’m known as the author of Dirty Proof and Sound Proof and, I hope, my recent book, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

But if you look at what’s selling in children’s ebooks here and in Europe, or if you log into Goodreads and search for me or my books, what you’ll see is that I’m known as the author of The Fox on the Box.

And that gives me a good feeling.

My Kingdom for a Cow

Udderly Loverly, by Sandy Katz,

Udderly Loverly, by Sandy Katz,

Other kids had dogs as pets. Or cats. My brother had goldfish. Me, I had cows. Thirty of them, mostly Holsteins, but one Jersey, one Guernsey, and a Red Swiss (her name was Beulah and she was not a friendly cow).

Keeping cows in our back yard would not have met with my mother’s approval, but luckily for me my uncle kept the cows on his farm, which was just three fields and one creek away, walkable in twenty minutes. Easy for me to visit the cows every day.

Contemplating future cow poems

Contemplating future cow poems

Every chance I got, I visited my cousins and slept over at my aunt and uncle’s. That meant that my cousins and I could help bring in the cows for their milking each morning and afternoon. I loved bringing in the cows (except for Beulah, who always hid in blackberry thickets or way, way up on the farthest hill next to the Osage orange tree).

I loved locking the cows in their stanchions, feeding them grain or hay, and milking them. I didn’t like shoveling manure that much, but manure was part of the whole cow deal. Cows were warm and smelled good: I loved leaning against them, my head nestled into their neck or flank.

Truth be told, I probably wanted to be a cow. I say that because I used to lick the same salt blocks the cows licked. Gross to think about it, but it didn’t taste gross at the time. Just salty.

Eventually, the cows and I parted ways: I went off to college, they stayed behind. But cows shoved their milky way into my consciousness, because many years later, while driving back to Ohio one very hot, almost-100-degree day, I noticed cows standing in the shade of a billboard that had been erected in their field, and out of nowhere, a poem called to me. Mooed, probably. I scribbled it down at the first oasis. It went like this:

        In Farmer’s pasture
        stands a billboard
        picturing palm trees and beaches
        with water the color of jade.

        On days so scorching
        that milk will curdle,
        we bunch up behind it
        to rest in its shade.

Cows do indeed bunch together. In herds. And, at least for me, poems bunch together. In subjects. No sooner had I written that one, single cow poem than a whole barnful of them were mooing at my door. Like this one:

        Naming Names
        Beulah, Daisy, Myrtle —
        Farmer has noooooo imagination!

        Hortense, Gertie, Ethel —
        Farmer is sooooo behind the times!

        As he talks to us
        we chew, we moo,
        we nod our heads
        at each drab name.

        After the milking is done and Farmer
        is gone, we call to each other —

        Whitney, Chelsea, Sierra!
        Jessica, Caitlyn, Tiara!

Moo Cow 1, by Sandy Katz,

Moo Cow 1, by Sandy Katz,

So, I’ve put a collection of these poems together into a children’s book and titled the manuscript Views from the Pasture. I hope it gets published some day soon
. . . before the cows come home.

The Line Between

Line BetweenMy father was born in Croatia (which a few years later became part of Yugoslavia) after his father left for the United States. Almost fourteen full years went by before my father saw his father. And yet, our family album contained this photo of my grandfather, my infant father, and my grandmother, standing side by side.

Don’t believe everything you see. My father explained to me that two different photographs were taken, one in Croatia, one in the US, and then they were composited into one photo, so that both my grandfather in this country and my grandmother and father in another country could each have a family portrait. My father told me that many immigrants had such photos made. Apparently there was a desire for such photos, and up sprang the clever services that provided them.

The line separating my grandfather “here” from my grandmother and father “there” was more formidable than the invisible line in the photo. The wide line of the Atlantic Ocean separated them. To cross that line, money had to be paid as passenger fare on one of the Cunard Lines immigrant ships. After fourteen years of digging ditches in Pennsylvania and working in a foundry in Ohio, my grandfather, Marko Grguric, earned enough money to pay for passage for his wife and son. Thus my grandmother and grandfather were finally reunited, and my father got to meet his father.

SS Berengaria, Cunard Line immigrant ship that my grandmother and father emigrated on

SS Berengaria, Cunard Line immigrant ship that my grandmother and father emigrated on

More than once my father shared with me the story of his childhood in a small village in the mountains of northern Croatia. He was a child who yearned for his father and later, as a young boy, he craved to leave the place where he was always hungry.

I wrote a picture book telling the story of my father’s childhood, and I titled the manuscript The Line Between. For years I tried to sell this manuscript to editors at various publishing houses. The rejection letters I received contained a mixed bag of comments, ranging from “compelling” and “well written” to “immigration stories are tough to sell” to “too quiet.” There were also outright “not for us” responses and no responses at all.

Just as in my father’s childhood, so in publishing there is a formidable line. In publishing, that line separates what editors deem right for the company they work for and what they deem not right — the “not” including a wide array of manuscripts ranging from poorly written to poorly told, to stories that are well written and well told but won’t earn a profit. For most editors who rejected it, The Line Between was a well written story that was “quiet” and therefore would not, in their opinion, sell.

All writers I know of have unpublished manuscripts stored somewhere: file cabinet, box in the basement, or computer. I am no exception, and The Line Between is not the only unpublished manuscript on my computer.

Like many writers, I don’t give up on a story I believe in. A Confederacy of Dunces took sixteen years before an editor bought it. Louis L’Amour collected 200 rejects before selling his first book. And so I continue to submit The Line Between to picture book editors.

I just hope that selling the story to an editor doesn’t take fourteen years.