Thursday 17 May 2018

What are the ingredients of a universally appealing early fiction series? By Chitra Soundar

Before I start, I wish to make a full disclaimer that I wrote this, in 2015, as part of my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. So it doesn't cite newer series. And that's why it has some clever quotes from academic references. This is not normal for me.

Early series fiction is the staple diet of a newly independent reader. Graduating from being read to with picture books to early readers, children aged 6-8 years old devour stories about everything – from animals to adventures, school life to sports.

At this age, these newly independent readers are not only reading for pleasure, but they are also understanding the new world of primary school, figuring out social life and coping with every-day challenges.

Transitioning from nursery and reception to the big school in Year 1 & 2, these children are discovering and making sense of the world around them. Series fiction in this new world is like a BFF – best friend forever with characters to get to know, make friends with and to return to again and again. And it is more joyful when they can share these characters with their real-life best friends too – as Lauren Child shows us in her Utterly Me – Clarice Bean.

As Denson puts it, ‘a “system of repetition and variation” is the basic stuff of seriality itself.’ (2011:5)

Characters in such series get into all sorts of interesting escapades not unlike the reader’s own life or at least what they hope they’d be able to do. Series fiction gives the reader the safety of the familiar to explore the unfamiliar.

This could be anything from having a pet (in the Lulu series by Hilary McKay) to finding out you have a new cousin who is very different (in the Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look).

As Makowski (1998:2) notes in ‘Serious about Series: Evaluations and Annotations of Teen Fiction in Paperback Series’, ‘single texts of fiction are like “one-night stand[s]”, while series aims to provide the reader with “that same grand experience night after night, week after week, year after year, ad infinitum.”’

I wanted to examine the ingredients that make an early fiction series appealing.

As a child, I too devoured every series I could lay my hands on – which in my childhood in India was predominantly R K Narayan’s Malgudi Days, combined with Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, Famous Five, Malory Towers and the American Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys collections.

Even though most of these books were set in a different country and in some cases in a different decade, and even though the lives of the characters appeared so different from my own – there was something comforting to return to find out what the characters in these books were up to. This can be compared to children and adults returning again and again to popular sitcoms that revolve around a group of friends or lead characters.

The most conventional narrative series, serials, and sequels for young people are characterized by a constant narrative presence, a common set of characters, the same or similar settings, recurring plot structures, and familiar themes. (Reimer, Ali, England, and Unrau, 2014: 10)

And that is the security blanket that young people want after they have left behind their favourite teddy to go to the big school. Early fiction with familiar characters of family, school and neighbourhood reinforces a child’s understanding of the world. Very often the writer brings the reader into a conspiratorial whisper, perhaps making fun of their family/school situations or the grownups in their lives, just like a best friend does.

It is important that they recognize familiar settings in the stories – so they can learn to read by context more easily. They are newly independent readers and reading and recognizing words through context boosts their confidence immensely.

Philosopher Rolli  (2012:96) observes, “many of our everyday experiences are embedded in a structure of repetition; we believe in the world, we believe that the world will continue to exist even when we close our eyes.”

So what goes into a successful young fiction series?

Almost every series written for this age group is funny. That does not mean they don’t have some serious stuff in them – they do. But the approach to voice, plot and cast are aimed to keep the tone light, the humour irreverent and the plot slap-stick. This is true whether it is Steve Voake’s Hooey Higgins or Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry or Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful or The World of Norm series by Jonathan Meres.

 Almost all of these books use the white space on the page creatively. The illustrator plays a key role in bringing these characters to life. Whether it involves B&W drawings, lists, doodles or use of font face and sizes, these books are not densely written novels – but more often journals filled with doodles. Whether it is a catchphrase, or disasters caused by character flaws of the lead character or one of the ensemble, the humour and tone of the stories showcase the joy of the writer.

 An ensemble cast

A regular ensemble cast supports the main character – either to help or hinder, sometimes both. This includes the friends, family, bully, teachers, friendly and unfriendly neighbours. Some of the cast might come and go. But a few would stay in the core team and in many cases a lead character has a partner in crime.

Cohesive and consistent portrayal of plot and characters

Once the rules of the world are laid out, the characters obey these rules, across different stories in the same series. The characters might discover new strengths and weaknesses as they go along, but they do not contradict themselves across the series.

In the humorous Agatha Parrot series by Kjartan Poskitt and David Tazzyman, there is a cast of characters with specific likes, dislikes and ambitions. Their behaviour in the entire series is driven out of these characteristics and personality traits.

While there is a familiarity and comfort across the series, each book in the series stands on its own. Each story has a beginning, middle and end, with all major plot points tied up. For this age group rarely are crumbs of clues left in to be picked up in a future story. In an early fiction series, when a reader discovers a book out of sequence, he/she finds sufficient introduction of the cast and the premise to follow the story. Of course if they like the book, they go on to read every single book in the set.

A distinct main character with a unique-selling-point
Like all good stories, series fiction is primarily led by character. While the main character has to be distinct and likeable, they must have something special that differentiates them from so many other series. For example, series with girl characters as leads, there are many successful series in print and each main character has to hold her place on the bookshelf.

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, Penny Dreadful by Joanna Nadin, Agatha Parrot by Kjartan Poskitti, Iggy and Me by Jenny Valentine, Ottoline by Chris Riddell are just some of the funny ones with girls as leads. Each lead character is different, special and distinctively funny.

Universal themes

The underlying theme of each story should be universal. Whether set in Africa in the family of Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke or the Precious series by Alexander McCall Smith or set in contemporary England in Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful’s life or Horrid Henry in Francesca Simon’s popular series – the themes revolve around the key concerns of this age-group: friendships, new school, losing someone, getting into trouble, dealing with conflict and loss of control.

These books deal with emotions that children of this age group are coming to grips with – from anger and jealousy to empathy, hope and joy; but with a twinkle in the eye, a wink here and a smile there.
Going from here, I also examined what goes into making a successful series with a BAME character as the lead. But as this is my last post for 2018 on ABBA (sorry everyone, life is getting in the way)… I’ve put the part two of my post on my blog. Click here to read, What additional ingredients are required to create a series that is led by a character from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic heritages?

Chitra Soundar writes picture books and series fiction. Her second book in the Prince Veera series, A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice (Walker Books, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy) has been shortlisted for the Surrey Children’s Book Award. Her latest book out is You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry and published by Lantana Publishing). Follow her on Twitter @csoundar.


Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Fascinating stuff Chitra as I have a grandson (Yesr 2) transitioning to longer stories so the academic insight into this is very useful.
We're sorry to see you go from ABBA and will miss your energy! But will pick up on your exploits through other sources. :)

Chitra Soundar said...

thank you