The Same But Different: Writing For Children’s Series

Originally Published: June 2011

by Vicki Oransky Wittenstein

Random House editor Diane Landolf and Julie Tibbott, editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spoke about the unique challenges of writing for children’s series at the SCBWI Metro New York Professional Series on April12th.

“All you know about writing craft applies to writing a series,” Landolf said. “You still need an engaging character, a strong voice, and a fast-paced plot.” But writing for a series does have distinct issues of craft. As Landolf emphasized, “With each book, series authors need to find a way to offer readers a similar experience to reading other books in the series while delivering a different plot.”

Landolf discussed the differences between two types of series published at Random House. Some, like Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones early chapter book series, are character-driven, where the trick is to develop a different plot for each book while using the same characters and a consistent voice throughout. Other series, though, are concept-driven. For example, in the Magic Tree House, an early chapter book series by Mary Pope Osborne, a magic tree house transports the same characters on an adventure based on books found inside the tree house. Similarly in Ron Roy’s A To Z Mysteries for 6-9-year olds, the same characters solve mysteries that begin with the letters of the alphabet (e.g., The Absent Author and The Haunted Hotel).

All books in these series stand alone, and the plots are not dependent on other books that come before or after. The characters are introduced each time to the new reader to the series, but in a way that is not boring to the continuing reader. Early chapter book series generally are between 6,000 to 8,000 words, while middle-grade series books, like the Horse Diaries, can be longer. In the Horse Diaries, different authors write each book in the first person from the point of view of the horse. The books cover different time periods, but each book is about an important child in a horse’s life.

Although Landolf edits many of the above series, most of her books are concept books that are part of a continuing novel series, like Pierdomenico Baccalario’s Century Quartet and Heck by Dale E. Basye. Since what happens in each book in these series serves the series as a whole, the trick is to not let the overriding plot overwhelm any one book. Moreover, Landolf points out, “The characters grow and learn through each book. Kids remember all the details, so authors have to be consistent, and careful not to mingle the different voices.”

Julie Tibbott, who mostly edits YA series for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, including the Dead Is series by Marlene Perez, the Riders of the Apocalypse series by Jackie Morse Kessler, and the Lost Voices Trilogy by Sarah Porter, explained additional craft concerns for series writing in her “Seven Rules for Sculpting a Series:”

#1. You have to LOVE your main character, or overarching concept.

#2. Consistency of character is more important than a cool plot point. For example, don’t ignore core characteristics in order to advance love triangles or otherwise add drama. If you are going to have a character do something out of character, you have to get your audience there, too.

#3. Be ready for some surprises. Strike a balance between knowing what’s going to happen in the upcoming books with willingness to see where the characters and plots take you.

#4. Don’t write yourself into a corner. Pay attention to characters’ ages, abilities, interests, relationships, and other potentially limiting character traits.

#5. Keep a series “bible.” Have a map of the place, who the characters are, what has happened, etc., so you can keep track.

#6. Make each installment of the series stand on its own.

#7. Don’t lose track of the long view and what you want to get across. Know or have an idea where the main character is going to end up.

“Most importantly, “Tibbott advises, “make sure you ask yourselves, is this really a series? Maybe it’s just a book. A lot of middle-grade series ideas are too simple. It’s often hard to see how we can sell multiple volumes of the book.”

Tibbott also pointed out that a stand-alone book is often an easier sell. “Publishers are careful about how many books they are committing to these days,” she said. “So they may only take on one or two to see how well they do.” Landolf agreed. “Early chapter books are especially hard to launch now. Lots are unsuccessful. Writers are better off focusing on novels.

Both Landolf and Tibbott suggested that the best approach might be for authors to query just the first book, and possibly mention that they see series potential. Subsequent books can be discussed later.

But as Landolf emphasized, launching a successful series could be good, continuous work for a writer. “If kids love the character, they’ll want to follow each adventure.” She pointed out that early readers are especially attracted to series because they have a hard time moving on to books that are different. They naturally gravitate to the comfortable characters and writing styles that they’ve already experienced. So even though series writing may be a tough sell for writers in a slow economy, great writing and an exciting project, like everything else in publishing, will still be hard to turn down.

Vicki Oransky Wittenstein is the author of Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths, 2010 Honor Book, Society of School Librarians International

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