The Power of a Series by Katie Muhtaris
When I was about nine years old, a family friend gave me a large box of Nancy Drew books, the kind where Nancy still sported a stylish 60’s bob and sensible flats. They had once belonged to their teenage daughter who had passed away many years earlier. I suppose they thought the books would be better served in the hands of another young reader, or maybe they were just too painful to look at. Either way, we left Crown Point, Indiana, with a box of books in the trunk and me laying across the back seat watching the rhythmic passing of highway street lamps. I fell asleep somewhere just before the Illinois border and woke up the next morning in my bed.
Bouncing from my bed with an uncharacteristic energy, I seized one faded folded flap and pulled the box, now sitting in the middle of my bedroom floor, open. I seized on of the books, that old book smell filling my nose and surveyed my score. Their yellow covers were bent and well worn, signs that they were well loved. As I sifted through the box in my room, I was enchanted by their dated covers and the mystery of their previous owner. I somehow felt as if I had a secret bond with this girl I had never met. I settled on one title and went back to bed, drawing the covers over my head. I began to read.
I was startled out of my journey by the sound of my mother bursting through the door. She tore the blanket off of me with a slight panic and then exasperation as she saw that I was not, in fact, dead but just reading.
“I’ve been calling you for breakfast for ten minutes,” she said.
“Oh…I didn’t hear you,” I replied, my eyes already drifting back to the text.
“I made pancakes, they’re getting cold.”
“Okay, I’ll be there in a minute,” I said. Why couldn’t she leave me alone? Didn’t she know Nancy was about to find the secret latch to the secret passage in the old mansion!? Good God, woman, get out!
It took my mother three more tries before I begrudgingly made my way down to the breakfast table, book in hand. By that evening I had finished it and moved on to my second one. I was hooked.
As I worked through the series, I began to feel deeply connected to Nancy. She was less of a character and more of a friend or big sister every day. I started to expect a certain chain of events to unfold, a predictable structure of mystery, danger, and triumph. I fell into those stories, in essence becoming Nancy. I scoured my own house for secret passages, I set up a reading nook in my closet so I wouldn’t be bothered. I read and reread those books for almost an entire year. I would read nothing else. Nothing but Nancy Drew.
I’d like to tell you that I was a reluctant reader up until that point, that reading Nancy Drew turned my life around, but that’s probably not true. I have books in my memory so I must have loved them. My dad reading Lafcadio every night before bed. The strange book where the girl orders wings from the back of a magazine and they begin to grow into her skin transforming her into a bird. A favorite collection of Japanese stories, the illustrations so beautiful they hurt my eyes. The book of swear words in different languages that I swiped from my grandparents’ house, two people with so many books you would scant notice one missing.
I wasn’t a reluctant reader, but I was a fair weather one. Reading came easily to me. It was no effort, it was just there. It seemed to please others when I read aloud nicely. It wasn’t for me. My box of books changed that. That day, when I brought those books home, I took charge of my reading life. I found a purpose and a connection with characters and stories and I wanted more.
That, my friends, is the power of the series. The power for stories to become a part of who we are. As a teacher I know that to help readers I often need to get them hooked on a series. The predictable plot structures, the familiarity with characters, setting, and genre all help support developing readers. But they help kids like me, too. I was a developing reader. Maybe my assessments were high, my letter was good, my lexile was fine, my standardized numbers were acceptable. But I was still a developing reader until the moment when I realized I could take charge of my reading life. That reading wasn’t for anyone else but me.
It’s been more years than I care to admit since I’ve had that box in hand. I wish I could tell you I still had those books. But that wouldn’t have been right. No, the truth is I grew tired of them one day, shipped them off to the second hand store. As quickly as I was hooked, I was over Nancy and her antics. She became like a friend from whom I had grown apart. I replaced her with Kristi, Claudia, Stacy, and Mary Ann. Girls who I saw a little of myself in (Kristi and Mary Ann) and girls who I wanted to be more like (Claudia and Stacy). The cycle continued on and on until I eventually gave up my monogamous relationship with series books and became a much more promiscuous reader. But maybe, just maybe one day I’ll pick up Nancy again and call her like an old friend whose voice I’ve been longing to hear just to remind me of home.
As educators and parents we can learn a few things from this.
- Find series books that are high interest for kids to sink their teeth into. As a classroom teacher I would often choose to read the first book in a series aloud to the class, knowing that the rest of the books would be a hot topic on waiting lists for the rest of the year. The more kids that read the series the more that wanted to and this lead to frequent informal conversations among students about books both in person and online.
- View all readers holistically. Even readers who appear to have mastered the skill of reading need coaching and support in order to develop the desire and passion for reading that will carry them into a lifetime of learning.
- Put books in kids’ hands. Keep putting books in kids’ hands until something clicks. My grandfather had been giving me books for years, but none of them hooked me as much as those Nancy Drews. Never stop giving kids books, never give up, one day it will click.
Katie Muhtaris has been an educator for 12 years and works as an instructional digital age learning coach in Barrington, IL. She is the co-author of Amplify! Digital Teaching and Learning in K-6 Classroom and Connecting Comprehension and Technology.