The Stratemeyer Syndicate-An Early Series of Children’s Books
What most of us think of as series books began at the turn of the century. Edward Stratemeyer was a prolific writer who wrote both adult and children’s books. While he was not the first author to create books with recurring characters, he was the first to create books in an open-ended series, which could continue as long as there was an interest.
Edward Stratemeyer soon found out that he had more ideas for stories and series than he could write on his own. He established a group of writers known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1905. Stratemeyer layed out the basic plot, outline, and characters of each book to be written. Writers were hired through classified advertisement to “ghost” write the books. The writers were paid a flat fee of between seventy-five and one hundred fifty dollars to write the books and received no royalties.
Edward Stratemeyer was a writer, editor, and a businessman. He realized there was a large untapped market in children’s literature. He also knew that if he could create an “I want more” attitude with the reader, he could sell more books.
Some of the key practices Stratemeyer used to insure an interested audience continue to be used today. Stratemeyer published several volumes at once to gain an interest in the series. His books were written under a pseudonym, in order to insure the author would “never die”. He created his books to look like adult books. The stories were written at a predictable length with chapters ending in cliffhangers to increase the readers’ desire to turn the pages, and as one volume was finished, the next volume assured the same experience. Statemeyer wanted his children’s literature to educate as well as entertain. He included fascinating bits of esoteric information woven throughout the mysteries. His characters learned through their adventures by imagining various sorts of ideal circumstances for growing up, not school. They reinforced values adults believe they should pass on to their children. These books celebrated the “American Dream”. Children became absorbed in the books and could fantasize about having as much independence and responsibility as the heroes have. For many children these books were their first in depth relationship outside of the family. They became familiar with the characters and were reassured by the patterned plots.
Edward Stratemeyer created over 125 series, including
The Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew.
He wrote over 160 books and provided plot, outlines and characters for over 800 more.
Advantages of Reading Books in a Series
Beginning readers must develop the pleasure of reading to become committed lifelong readers. Books in a series can help to promote lifelong reading. Spending many hours reading the same series allows children to practice and become confident readers. The familiar makes reading less taxing and creates a feeling of success. The better the novice reader is at a skill the more pleasure he/she is likely to derive from it. “Children who read a lot by choice are more likely to succeed in school than those who dislike reading” (
, May-June 2003). Once a child falls in love with a series he/she realizes these books come with a guarantee of pleasure. When two or more children enjoy the same series, this creates social connections among readers who enjoy, discuss and interpret these books.
Young readers learn to be better readers not through exercises and tests but through “free” reading. Children who read voluntarily find it personally rewarding. They continually come across words they already know and learn to skim, surmise, and conclude. This is accomplished when children get “hooked” on a series. Children find that reading books in a series minimizes the risks of reading. When children haven’t developed a reading preference a library can seem overwhelming; but once they know how to look up and find their favorite series, finding other resources becomes easier. Knowing that there are familiar characters with a predictable plot makes series reading valuable and an easy choice.
Arguably the child best served by reading in a series is the reluctant reader. When a reluctant reader becomes connected to a series it builds confidence and helps the individual become a member of a community of readers. Reading in a series provides a lot of scaffolding to build support. Reluctant readers are also served by the repetition of words and the predictability of the texts. Young readers learn how to sort significant details from less significant ones and how to anticipate what may or should happen. The consistency of characters and the highly patterned plots provide reassurance and familiarity, thus minimizing the risks and disappointments of reading that is too challenging.
Criticisms of Reading Books in a Series
Books in a series have been criticized for being sub-literary, formulaic, and lacking in diversity. From my reading of different series I can see some truth in this charge. Not all “ghost” writers have the same level of writing skill. However, one author, who keeps the integrity of the writing level, does write many of today’s series. However, the very fact that serial books are formulaic is exactly what makes the novice reader like them. They are predictable but they are also success stories with happy endings, which grab the imagination of children struggling through their own obstacles. The characters are strong and self-assured. These stories motivate children to read and help them to develop a love of reading as well as practice the skills needed for more difficult reading later on.
My greater concern with books in a series has to do with diversity. There is a lack of culturally diverse books. Updated series contain side characters and an occasional hero who happens to be African American, Latino, Asian American, Middle Eastern American, and/or Native American, but it would be nice to see more of this.