craft review by Jen Jobart

If you gave most kids the choice between unlimited books of a compelling book series and a truck full of candy, it would be a tough choice. Middle grade kids are ravenous readers, and there’s nothing better than a shelf of books that is seemingly never-ending.

Usually our discussion group focuses one book at a time. For our December discussion, we took a slightly different approach. We all read books from different series, and then talked about them as a whole–specifically what we can learn about craft from them. Here’s what we concluded.

Types of Series

Kids tend to gravitate toward certain types of books. The series that we looked at fell into two broad categories: Adventure and Comedy. Some books that we read fall into both categories, but we’ll split them in this way to make them easier to talk about.

Adventure

Adventure series often have a set of well known characters who go on different adventures that span several books.

Kids who read them seek an escape to another world, and a fantastical set of problems that dwarf the problems they are facing.

Examples of adventure series include:
Animorphs by Katherine Applegate
The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
Gameknight 999 Adventures by Mark Cheverton
Warriors by Erin Hunter
Cupcake Diaries by Darlene Panzera
Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce
Percy Jackson and the Olympians, 39 Clues, and other books by Rick Riordan
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland
Spirit Animals by various authors

Comedy

Comedy series also have a set of well known characters. Kids who read them identify with the characters and seek comfort in reading about kids like themselves. Comedy series give kids a humorous escape and release from their everyday lives and stressors.

The problems in comedy series revolve around friendships and family relationships or common goals. They capture the intense emotions that kids have about their friends (and enemies, too!) Character arcs are often static. By empathizing with the main character, readers are in the driver’s seat in terms of understanding the situations on their own terms.  Sometimes they get the jokes right away, but even if they don’t, they can revisit the text later.  This approach provides a layered understanding of not just the book, but also the world that readers inhabit.

Comedy series use lots of humor and are very fast paced. They often include graphic elements that draw in new readers. They often have a lower word count than typical middle grade novels, maybe 10-20K words. They rely on voice, hence good dialogue is key.

Examples of comedy series include:
Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
Dork Diaries by Rachel Renée Russell
Stick Dog by Tom Watson

What matters

As one member pointed out in our book club discussion, in a successful series, “the characters are real and accessible, the problems they deal with are relevant, the story is presented in a contained/safe manner, and the characters solve their own problems.” While more literary middle grade novels might stretch some of these elements, they’re all important in any novel.

We think of most series as fast-paced, but with voice and interiority, we understand a lot about the characters through the action.  All of those components are necessary to build a successful series.

Specifically, successful series have:

  • Relatable characters. The characters are the common thread that holds a series together.  Readers ultimately pick up the next book because they love the characters and want to find out what they do next.
  • Fast-paced action.  Each of the books in a series must have a strong exterior plot.  Kids have stressful lives. Between navigating family and friend relationships and leading busy schedules that leave little room for contemplation, sometimes they just need to fill their minds with something that is completely different. A good book is a great escape. A series of good books is an even better one.
  • Compelling interiority. Part of creating a relatable character is opening the character’s mind to the child. Kids use interiority as part of their developmental path of becoming less self-centered and more empathetic to others.
  • Strong voice. Another part of creating a relatable character is a strong voice that pulls kids into the story.
  • Distilled backstory. The library rarely has the first book in a series in stock, and kids don’t always read series books in order. They need to be able to jump in with any book, quickly get oriented, and dive in.

What doesn’t necessarily matter

As adult readers, we look for different things than kids. We concluded that some things don’t matter as much to kids as they do to adults.

  • Logical plots. You can sometimes get away with manufacturing plot lines that create tension for the characters, even if they don’t make logical sense or come to a satisfying conclusion.
  • Main character arc. Characters in series tend to stay static, since they appear over several books. Sometimes there is a long character arc that spans a series, but not always.
  • Perfect writing. Kids don’t read every word and they don’t get hung up on flawed writing like we do. Many standalone novels take years and many rewrites before they are released. By contrast, once a series concept is developed, authors can release two or more books a year. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for perfect writing.

Wrap-up

We encourage you to read some series novels for craft inspiration.

There are lots of great series books, and we couldn’t list them all. Are there series that you loved that we didn’t mention?  Let us know your favorite series in the comments!

If you like to read series, then you might also want to write one. Check this blog for a future post on writing a series. And in the meantime, happy reading!


Jen Jobart writes middle grade fiction and is always sending characters she loves on dangerous adventures. She is an active member of the SCBWI and has studied writing for children through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. When Jen’s not writing, she’s outside gardening and raising chickens at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her at www.jenjobart.com.