A Series of Extraordinarily Fortunate Events

In her bedroom bookshelf, Isidora Coric, 8, keeps more than two dozen "Magic Tree House" books lined up numerically. She reads the tales in order, too. "She will not skip," says her mom, Valeria Coric. When Isidora visits the bookstore near her home in Lincolnshire, Ill., she always checks for new additions. She's about to be in luck: Random House is printing 300,000 copies of "Night of the New Magicians," the 35th installment in Mary Pope Osborne's wildly popular series about a boy, Jack, and his sister, Annie, who travel to different times in history. If she can't wait until the pub date in March, she and other "Magic Tree House" fans can always scoop up "Pompeii: Lost and Found," an Osborne-written picture book that's out this week.

Today children's series are more popular than ever with kids--and therefore with publishers. After all, if kids get hooked on characters like Jack and Annie--or Harry, Ron and Hermione--they're sure to buy the sequel, and the sequel to the sequel and ... "There's a certain amount of comfort that kids find in reading about familiar characters," says Rick Richter, president of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. Look at Harry Potter. There are 120 million copies of the six Harry titles in print in the United States alone.

And there's a certain amount of comfort for publishers in the fact that a series title is "sort of pre-sold by its preceding books," says Suzanne Murphy, Scholastic's vice president of trade marketing. "The fan base builds and builds. In a successful series, with each new title you're printing more." Melanie Rehak, author of "Girl Sleuth," a nonfiction book about the cottage industry that produced the Nancy Drew series, adds: "The hope is that you create sort of a self-perpetuating audience, always hanging around at the bookstore, waiting for the next one to be published."

The additions to existing series--and the creation of new series--never stop. Random House is printing 200,000 copies of "Junie B., First Grader: Aloha-ha-ha!"--the 25th book about a funny kindergartener (now a first grader). This spring Scholastic will publish "Charlie Bone and the Hidden King," the fifth book in Jenny Nimmo's "Charlie Bone" series, and "The Tenth City," the latest "Land of Elyon" title. In April, Scholastic is publishing "The Wright 3," the sequel to Blue Balliett's award-winning "Chasing Vermeer" mystery. (It's about Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House.) Meanwhile, like spinoff TV shows, popular series give birth to other series. Orchard Books is planning at least one spinoff to "Charlie Bone." This summer Simon & Schuster relaunches the "Nancy Drew Notebooks" (a series about a younger Nancy) as "Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew" and will reintroduce Tom Swift. And in May, Random House will launch a new version of "A to Z Mysteries" (previous books worked through all 26 letters of the alphabet). In April, Scholastic introduces a series of graphic novels based on "The Baby-sitters Club." A similar series based on "Goosebumps" appears in September.

The original series heroes and heroines were usually small-fry detectives (Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown) or techno-adventurers (Tom Swift). Today fantasy is the cornerstone in the kid's series world. "That's what kids are videogaming. That's what they're reading," says Ken Geist, editorial director of Orchard Books, which publishes Charlie Bone. Orchard is launching a new adventure-fantasy series, "Revenge of the Shadow King," with two boys and a girl. (Like Harry Potter, many of the new books feature both girl and boy characters--key to appealing to both genders.) Next month Simon & Schuster's Aladdin Paperbacks is introducing "Spy Gear," an adventure series about four kids who solve mysteries with surveillance equipment, based on the Wild Planet electronic products. And this spring Random House starts a new fantasy series, "Weird Planet," about three alien children who crash their spacecraft on earth.

Children's book series have come a long way in the eight decades since girl detective Nancy Drew first appeared. Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy creator Edward Stratemeyer hired ghost writers to prolifically churn out the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and Bobbsey Twin series. Today series are often written by award-winning authors who would never dream of farming out their titles. That means fewer titles (one or two a year instead of one a month) but better quality. "A lot of the older series would publish a couple hundred. When you have an author writing them herself, you aren't going to get a couple hundred," says Shana Corey, who edits the Junie B. series. With old series like "Goosebumps," "they had practically one a month. That became essential for the faster-faster-more-more syndrome," says Osborne, who started the "Magic Tree House" series in 1992 and now writes just two new titles for it a year. "I didn't want to drop my standards."

Whereas no one knew Nancy Drew author Carolyn Keene (she was a pseudonym for all the ghostwriters of the series), kids everywhere write to and meet authors like Park and Osborne. "The writers themselves have become celebrities," says Richter of Simon & Schuster. Kids often visit publishers' Web sites dedicated to specific series to read about the writer and to participate in online discussions. What's rarer is for a series author to enjoy critical as well as financial success. Rowling and Lemony Snicket are among the exceptions. And Louis Sachar had to quit writing his funny "Marvin Redpost" books and produce "Holes" before he won a prestigious Newbery award.

Traditionally series books were paperbacks. Think about the inexpensive old "Boxcar Children," "Baby-sitters Club" and "Sweet Valley High" mega-series. But Harry Potter helped pave the way for higher price points--and hardbacks. Now some series begin in traditional hardcover, followed by paperback editions. Others, such as Lemony Snicket, Dear America, Charlie Bone, The Land of Elyon and the Spiderwick Chronicles, are published only in hardcover. The Junie B. Jones and Magic Tree House books were originally in paperback only--but then switched to longer, and more expensive, hardback formats. Hardbacks make nicer gifts, says Mallory Loehr, editor in chief for Random House's children's imprint. But parents don't always like the steeper price. "It does bug me," says Chicago mom Kelly Zehfuss, whose 8-year-old daughter, Anja, devours series (and non-series) books.

Luckily for budget-minded parents, the new series appeal to librarians. In the past, "there was a backlash against series books," says Rehak, the "Girl Sleuth" author. "There were always librarians who thought series books were complete garbage. That has changed a lot. The attitude now is, if you can get kids to read anything at all, it's worth it." And the series do get the readers. Since it appeared in September, "Junie B., First Grader: Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!" is up to 650,000 copies in print. "Children's books don't have to have a message," says Corey, the Junie B. editor. "The most important thing they can do is be so much fun that they hook kids on reading. It's not 'take your medicine.'"

So expect to see more. After all, "it's the comfort food of reading," says Ilene Cooper, children's books editor for the American Library Association's Booklist. "It's the same reason people like soap operas." But soap opera plotlines can become far fetched, and the authors of today's generation of series don't want that. "At some point, I'm going to run out of story lines that make sense," says Junie B. author Barbara Park. "I don't want to take her into that crazy world of Junie B., CIA agent." Until then, here's to "Junie B., Aloha-ha-ha!"

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