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Field Notes: Escaping Series Mania

kinney_hard luckLast spring I worked, temporarily, as a school librarian, a position I hadn’t held since Reagan was president. There were lots of adjustments, some easier than others. But the biggest surprise of all was that in this elementary school in an affluent suburb in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, almost every child was really reading, with kindergarten kids regularly circulating, understanding, and loving formulaic series books such as My Weird School and the A to Z Mysteries, and with first-, second-, and third-graders heavy into the Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, and Kylie Jean books.

These primary-aged children were reading voraciously and with great pleasure, happily passing through the stage of reading development that, almost fifty years ago in Books and the Teenage Reader, G. Robert Carlsen labeled “unconscious delight.” Following the patterns Carlsen outlines, these readers wholeheartedly embraced series books, eager to discover what was happening in Greg Heffley or Nikki Maxwell’s worlds. They were invested in the characters and their stories, obsessive about finding the next entry, and often racing through a book every couple of days.

Understandably, since learning to read is the most empowering educational experience in a youngster’s life, these students were proud of themselves. As they told me over and over and with great satisfaction, they now read “chapter books.” Being a chapter book reader was, in their minds, an educational plateau, and by golly they had reached it and weren’t turning back. Also understandably, parents were eager for their offspring to increase their reading competence. Both parents and children believed that the path to reading success lay in continuing to read series books in the early grades and then turning to longer, more sophisticated works as the children grew older.

What these children didn’t read on their own were picture books. I could optimistically term them “everybody books” until the cows came home, but in the self-important derisiveness of six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds, picture books implied “baby books.” Obviously, these kids had not gotten to series chapter books without earlier having had extensive experience with picture books, but by first grade the students were, as one confident young soul told me, “done with them.”

All across the United States, of course, there are thousands of primary-aged children reading and loving picture books — and there may be even more now that a picture book has won the Newbery Medal — but there are also kids beyond the boundaries of my then-school who aren’t. In her provocative 2010 article “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” in The New York Times, Julie Bosman reported that picture books weren’t selling in great numbers at many independent bookstores. Instead, parents were purchasing chapter books, perhaps thinking that longer works equated with higher standardized test scores. And several children’s librarians I’ve spoken with describe a similar situation. Clearly, in many places, that huge universe of terrific picture books characterized as relevant for youngsters ages five through eight is simply not on the reading radar for anyone out of kindergarten.

pilkey_captain underpantsBut here’s the thing. An exclusive diet of early series books might limit rather than expand reading competence. By their very nature, these series books tend to have linear plots, similar narrative voices, and predictable outcomes. Most contain a character who is Every Kid, or who Every Kid wants to be, offering situations comfortably existing in the realm of familiar realistic fiction and only venturing into fantasy in the broadest of ways, with characters such as superhero Captain Underpants or consistent magical elements such as Morgan Le Fay’s ability to send two children inside a magic tree house on quests.

An important corollary to the old adage “we learn to read by reading” is this: we learn to read what we’re reading by reading. The very predictability of series chapter books makes them easier to read because children know the literary ropes: the narrative voice, the characters, the plot lines, the situations. These books are straightforward, with little ambiguity; children can find their favorite series, learn its patterns, and expect other books they read to be similar. Such devotion to a limited segment of literature may be developmentally natural for emerging readers — but, whatever the reason, the avid readers I encountered saw reading as an act of affirmation of what they already knew rather than an adventure into the unknown, where the book, rather than their own solid preconceptions, would be their guide to making meaning.

Here’s a memorable example of a child predetermining meaning, from my time as a middle-school librarian in the 1980s. One girl wanted a mystery, and I suggested The Séance by Joan Lowery Nixon. The girl interrupted my brief booktalk, saying, “Oh, I do want to read this. I know what’s going to happen. The girls are having a séance, and a murderer is going to come up from the basement and kill them one by one.” That was not the plot, but it wasn’t my place to correct her. She took the book home. When, after a week or so, she finished the book, she confessed, “It was pretty disappointing. The man in the cellar never came upstairs, so the book didn’t make much sense.” All readers bring their individual backgrounds and life experiences to the reading and understanding of text. But when those backgrounds create a way to determine meaning by generating unshakable templates for the direction of a story rather than tools for exploring meaning, critical reading and thinking suffer.

So, what’s an adult children’s literature enthusiast to do? I saw my role last year as three-fold: accept what the students were already reading; introduce a wider variety of fiction; and help these youngsters understand the many ways stories work.

The first strategy was to recognize how delicate that “unconscious delight” stage is. Just like going on the proverbial bear hunt and encountering grass, a river, and mud, beginning readers can’t go around or over this stage; they have to go through it. And if they don’t, their pleasure reading will stop. So the books have to be available, and children’s tastes have to be met with respect and interest.

pennypacker_completely clementineThe second strategy was to suggest more sophisticated series. The very comfort of series reading is important for newly independent readers, but those series that contain beginnings, middles, and ends (such as Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine books); or characters that grow and change (such as Kimberly Willis Holt’s Piper Reed); or depend on well-developed characters rather than coincidence to advance the plot (such as Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho); or present various narrative patterns (such as 43 Old Cemetery Road by Kate Klise) offer more sophistication than much of the mass-market fare. Sometimes students took my suggestions and sometimes they ignored them, opting instead for a previously read volume of their favorite series. But at least they now had the knowledge that other offerings were available, and when they were ready to come out of unconscious delight, they were armed with suggestions for thoughtful further reading. The same principle works with individual titles, such as the light fantasy of Joy Cowley’s Chicken Feathers or Patricia MacLachlan’s Waiting for the Magic or the comfortable realism so nicely depicted in Kevin Henkes’s The Year of Billy Miller or Mavis Jukes’s The New Kid. Although not in series, these books are well within the reading experiences of young children and offer original and rewarding stories.

For the third strategy, I deliberately introduced picture books into my library programming. The students came to the library for an hour every other week on a (non-ideal) fixed schedule, and even though they would not check out picture books, they were willing to listen to them and examine them if I left them on library tables. So I read picture books aloud, letting the magic of fine stories, no matter what the format and without any circulation requirements, create great listening experiences.

My selections were deliberate, but not necessarily confined to highly sophisticated picture books or picture books for older or gifted readers. I chose entertaining books relevant to youngsters from ages five to eight that help build the concept of story and offer exposure to various genres, formats, or literary elements [see sidebar].

building our houseI began by reading books that create story through extratextual clues. These students were prose-dependent, but while I was reading picture books aloud, the children were free to concentrate on the illustrations, allowing them to notice subtleties in story development. Think of Peggy Rathmann’s Officer Buckle, for example, so boringly earnest when listing safety tips at school assemblies, until faithful dog Gloria comes along to provide some pizzazz. Our hapless policeman is oblivious to her antics, but the audience picks up on the joke immediately, feeling superior because they “get it” while this figure of authority doesn’t. Or, consider the subplot of the mother’s advancing pregnancy, never mentioned in the text but obvious in the illustrations, in Jonathan Bean’s Building Our House.

These kids also needed opportunities for persistent engagement with books, where, by listening to a story through multiple readings, they had opportunities to consider and reconsider meaning over time. Such practices reinforce the idea that reading can be more than a casual acquaintance with a few words. We’re not going to build a lasting, meaningful love of reading if it’s perceived as only a quick, diversionary pastime. Kids have plenty of opportunities for such activities, and, while pleasurable, they tend to be fleeting. Reading, on the other hand, allows them to look at and think about themselves and their worlds, but only if they have opportunities to contemplate the content. Picture books are the natural platform on which to begin that process.

barnett_samanddaveMac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s 2015 Caldecott Honor Book Sam & Dave Dig a Hole begs for persistent engagement. Children completely enamored with series books are looking for certainty in their literature, but they fail to find it here. The open-ended story prompts much discussion, and some frustration for those who are used to tidy endings, but it also commands many re-readings as groups of youngsters peruse the book again and again. With its spare text and generous use of white space, Sam & Dave gives children intellectual room to think about what’s going on. New picture books such as JiHyeon Lee’s Pool and Alison Paul’s The Plan also encourage careful study in order to find plausible narratives. And here’s where we get into one of the most important features of reading: kids are letting the book teach them how to read it.

Children learning how stories work can put those skills to the test with books that break the traditional rules. The abundance of metafictive picture books now available — from Deborah Freedman’s Blue Chicken to Emily Gravett’s Wolves to David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs — give kids a chance to play with a story’s format. They can also get in the act by sharing Gilad Soffer’s Duck’s Vacation, turning pages despite Duck’s pleas to stop disturbing the bucolic scene, and then helping to get Duck out of danger when pirates take over his peaceful beach. Similarly, when first a dog, then a boy, a fire truck, and Bella the narrator disappear into the gutter of Richard Byrne’s This Book Just Ate My Dog!, it’s the child reader who must (according to directions Bella dispenses through a letter that appears from the gutter) shake the book to release them all.

bluechickenAllowing series mania to dominate library service for very young children may not, in the long run, create lifelong readers. Like the three pigs building their dwellings, children are in the process of constructing their literary homes. They can build a metaphorical prefab out of straw composed solely of predictable series books. They can construct a slightly more substantial literary house with twigs and branches that represent different areas of immediate interest. But as the diversions fade, or others take over, those houses will fall into disrepair. Instead, children can create a literary home of bricks with a solid foundation of the possibilities inherent in reading; with books that aren’t simply easy or just fun but rather meaningful and reusable resources for understanding themselves and their worlds.

 

Recommended Picture Books for Primary Readers

It’s Only Stanley (Dial, 2015) by Jon Agee

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick, 2014) by Mac Barnett; illus. by Jon Klassen

The Skunk (Roaring Brook, 2015) by Mac Barnett; illus. by Patrick McDonnell

Building Our House (Farrar, 2013) by Jonathan Bean

Those Shoes (Candlewick, 2007) by Maribeth Boelts; illus. by Noah Z. Jones

Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event (Ferguson/Farrar, 2015) by Rebecca Bond

One Cool Friend (Dial, 2012) by Toni Buzzeo; illus. by David Small

This Book Just Ate My Dog! (Holt, 2014) by Richard Byrne

The Name Jar (Knopf, 2001) by Yangsook Choi

Little Roja Riding Hood (Putnam, 2014) by Susan Middleton Elya; illus. by Susan Guevara

A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever (Harcourt, 2008) by Marla Frazee

Blue Chicken (Viking, 2011) by Deborah Freedman

Wolves (Simon, 2006) by Emily Gravett

Egg Drop (Knopf, 2002) by Mini Grey

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2008) by Deborah Hopkinson; illus. by John Hendrix

Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crab Cakes Later) (Clarion, 1991) by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard; illus. by James Ransome

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2014) by Anne Isaacs; illus. by Kevin Hawkes

Dear Mr. Blueberry (McElderry, 1991) by Simon James

All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom (Simon, 2014) by Angela Johnson; illus. by E. B. Lewis

Pool (Chronicle, 2015) by JiHyeon Lee

Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic (Lee & Low, 2012) by Ginnie Lo; illus. by Beth Lo

Tía Isa Wants a Car (Candlewick, 2011) by Meg Medina; illus. by Claudio Muñoz

Baseball Saved Us (Lee & Low, 1993) by Ken Mochizuki; illus. by Dom Lee

Sparky! (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2014) by Jenny Offill; illus. by Chris Appelhans

The Plan (Houghton, 2015) by Alison Paul; illus. by Barbara Lehman

January’s Sparrow (Philomel, 2009) by Patricia Polacco

Officer Buckle and Gloria (Putnam, 1995) by Peggy Rathmann

Creepy Carrots! (Simon, 2012) by Aaron Reynolds; illus. by Peter Brown

Exclamation Mark (Scholastic, 2013) by Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illus. by Tom Lichtenheld

A Perfect Season for Dreaming / Un tiempo perfecto para soñar (Cinco Puntos, 2010) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz; illus. by Esau Andrade Valencia

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Viking, 1989) by Jon Scieszka; illus. by Lane Smith

Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads (Roaring Brook, 2014) by Bob Shea; illus. by Lane Smith

Duck’s Vacation (Feiwel, 2015) by Gilad Soffer; trans. from the Hebrew by Rena Rossner and Ilana Kurshan

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown (Harper, 2012) by Sally M. Walker; illus. by Sean Qualls

The Three Pigs (Clarion, 2001) by David Wiesner

That Is NOT a Good Idea! (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2013) by Mo Willems

Each Kindness (Paulsen/Penguin, 2012) by Jacqueline Woodson; illus. by E. B. Lewis

From the March/April 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Betty Carter

Betty Carter, an independent consultant, is professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

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Comments

  1. I love these insights! I went checked out a whole stack of picture books afterwards. For us it was, The Quiet Place by Stewart at the top of the pile.

  2. Anne Stockwell says:

    I had a great time this year reading The Skunk to 4th graders. They loved it and we had a waiting list to check it out! I also had been reading Paddle to the Sea to the 3rd graders, until I had to go out on medical leave. One page each library time. They loved it, plus it hits some of their standards! Oldie but goodie!

  3. I have been doing RE FORE MO in March and finding how wonderful picture books are ow. I especially liked Freedom Song about Henry”Box” Brown The illustrations were beautifully done. “That is NOT a good idea” was hilarious and I know children will love the twist at the end. The chicks comment fits very well too. I have The Swan out now about pavlova an skimmed it today.
    The changes in picture books seem to be beautiful and often very different illustrations and all printed in China!
    Jane retired teacher- now author

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