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Series, Schmeries: What’s the Big Deal?

And now, for the epic throw-down you’ve all been waiting for: series vs. stand-alone books! Dun-dun-DUNNNNN! I freely admit that I worked myself up into a rhetorical tizzy as I drafted this post. Last week, I cheerfully volunteered to write the first entry in our exploration of series vs. stand-alone titles. Let’s just say that I’ve lived to regret that nonchalant confidence.

Let’s go!

According to the song (and Omar Little, perhaps its most famous fictional interpreter), the cheese stands alone, but to be considered for YA literature’s highest prize, must a book stand alone, too?


trans Series, Schmeries: Whats the Big Deal?
Let’s begin by first noting that the current Printz Policies & Procedures do not stipulate that a winning or honor title has to stand alone as a narrative. It used to say that, or something very close to it, not long ago. The brilliant and thoughtful LizB has furnished the criteria from her year (2009 — let’s call them P&P Classic), including the following statement:

“The book should be self-contained, not dependent on other media for its meaning or pleasure. The book should not be considered in terms of other works by the author but as complete in itself.”

The 2011 and 2012 committees adhered to those rules, even though they’re no longer codified within the Policies & Procedures. As a P&P nerd, I’m curious about when those two sentences were removed, and why.

A survey of this master list of Printz Award winner and honor titles reveals the following series titles:

  • TRUE BELIEVER, by Virginia Euwer Wolff
  • POSTCARDS FROM NO MAN’S LAND, by Aidan Chambers
  • THE FIRST PART LAST, by Angela Johnson
  • AIRBORN, by Kenneth Oppel
  • CHANDA’S SECRETS, by Allan Stratton
  • THE POX PARTY, by M.T. Anderson
  • DREAMQUAKE, by Elizabeth Knox
  • THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES, by M.T. Anderson
  • THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST, by Rick Yancey

Of these, TRUE BELIEVER and DREAMQUAKE are mid-series titles and THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES is the conclusion of a duet of books.

So, what does “stand-alone” really mean, and how important is it? To be sure, a book must stand on its own merits — that’s why committee members only consider the books in front of them, without comparing, and it’s why we are expected to leave at the door our longstanding affection for (or loathing of) a particular author’s oeuvre. But is it possible for a book to stand on its own merits as a work of literature and also be an integral (and fully integrated) part of a longer narrative at the same time?

I’ll be honest: I started writing this post firmly on the side of YES, but as I thought about reasons to vote NO, my commitment wavered, as I realized it was primarily a gut-level vote! So I’m going to sort of cop out and outline below possible reasons for both NO and YES and hope that you smarties can help me sort through my thicket of thoughts and feelings.

On the side of NO:

  • Exposition: too much in Book Ones, not enough (or clumsily done) in Book Twos or Threes.
  • Genre: I love books in all sorts of genres, but far more winner and honor titles have been contemporary realistic fiction than any other genre (and of course, realistic fiction is a genre, with many sub-genres). Many series are published in genres that often have a hard time muscling up to the Serious Literature Table. Now, before you pull out the knives, let me be clear: I’m not saying genre fiction is weak (quite the opposite). I’m saying that there’s a lot of anti-genre bias out there, and that the world-building you need to appreciate as a reader of fantasy can be hard to commit to as a reader and appreciator of primarily contemporary realistic fiction, where the world is ours and doesn’t need much in the way of building.

On the side of YES:

  • Ok, it’s still a gut-level vote, but let me sling some titles your way that may help illuminate where that vote is coming from:
    • THE AMBER SPYGLASS, by Philip Pullman
    • THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA and THE KING OF ATTOLIA, by Megan Whalen Turner
    • REAL LIVE BOYFRIENDS, by E. Lockhart
    • PTOLEMY’S GATE, by Jonathan Stroud
    • RED GLOVE, by Holly Black
  • A richer, more complex reading experience, Part 1: when you read a book that’s part of a larger narrative, you have interpretive options not present when reading a stand-alone title. You can read it in isolation or with knowledge and appreciation of all that’s come before. Under P&P Classic, committee members had to un-remember what you’d read in previous series entries, which is…tricky. I’m really not sure where the current P&P leave committee members. If they don’t address explicitly how to handle mid-series titles, is it up to the committee how to address them? If so (and that’s a big if), it’s possible that a committee could choose to consider a mid-series title in context.
  • A richer and more complex, Part 2: This addresses specifically the issue of genre. All the metaphor extension, character development, and nuanced plotting that are so prized in literary fiction are equally present in the best genre fiction, in addition to something unique to genres outside literary fiction: exceptional world-building. Now, one reader’s admirably intricate world-building is another’s overwhelming list of places, names, and languages. Happily, most books set in very carefully imagined worlds often include dramatis personae, maps, family trees, and so on.

Sooooo, where do we stand? To me, the biggest question mark is the difference between the current P&P and P&P Classic. Genre bias is something that committees can, should and do discuss at the table and via their listserv so that they read each book with as little bias (and as much awareness of the biases they have) as possible. Now that I’ve successfully de-knotted at least part of my thinking (big shout-out to LizB, who talked me down from the Crazy Ledge of Too Many Topics at Once) and reflected on both previous winner and honor titles, as well as some rationales for NO and YES, I think I’m firmly back on the side of YES. Please, tell me how wrong I am and why.

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Comments

  1. The answer seems simple; I don’t know why I’m missing the nuance: it’s entirely possible that a book in a series–even one that depends on your knowledge of previous books–could be beautiful enough to win the gold or silver. I like your “gut-level slinging” here: THE AMBER SPYGLASS easily compares in quality with books that actually won in 2000, as do the MWT books in 2001 and 2006. (Er, they may even be better than some of the books that won.) If the standalone issue is what sank them in discussions, I’m going to say it’s a travesty.

    As an unrelated aside, there’s an entire post wrapped up in this sentence, and begging to be written: I’m saying that there’s a lot of anti-genre bias out there, and that the world-building you need to appreciate as a reader of fantasy can be hard to commit to as a reader & appreciator of primarily contemporary realistic fiction, where the world is ours & doesn’t need much in the way of building. Does this blog do requests?

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      @Elizabeth, you are downright prescient! On the docket for August, right before the review and analysis posts start up again, we have a series of posts planned that are all about genre. I don’t know yet where we’ll go with that, but you can be sure genre bias will be discussed.

      I’m pretty firmly on the other side of the standalone v series question, although I don’t think they are always mutually exclusive. I’ll leave it there for now, though, as there is a good chance I’ll end up spinning my thoughts into a full post (I do love a platform!).

      A few additions to the series books previously recognized by the Printz committee: Stuck in Neutral (the companion is already out and the direct sequel comes out this year); Angus, Thongs–first in a series, and now there’s a companion series as well; and The Body of Christopher Creed (a sequel came out last year, I believe). Also, Dreamquake, like Octavian 2, is the second half of a duet, rather than a middle book in a trilogy or longer series. This may be pertinent, as it means that only once has a middle book been recognized, and some of the others that Sophie lists (The First Part Last, for one) are part of an ongoing, interconnected world, but I think that’s a much looser definition of series than the one I know I’m considering when I talk about standalone; by the looser definition, Jellicoe might count as part of a series as well.

      Ok, stopping myself before I soapbox; I have so much to say about what a “series” book means in this context!

      Oh, one last thought: I am not in the Amber Spyglass fan group. I thought it was awfully full of authorial intrusion and sacrificed story to purpose at times. Not a terrible book, but that more than anything else would have kept it off the table for me.

  2. Kimberly says:

    Thanks for the love for THE AMBER SPYGLASS. Pullman’s achievement in that third novel is still staggering and I’ve always been a little upset that others consider it a weak conclusion (I have my theories as to why). It’s a nearly perfect book. I’m all for series books being considered.

  3. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Karyn, I just sent a quick note to Sophie about DREAMQUAKE being a duet. For the other titles (based on the convo she & I had), she omitted those books that were not clearly book one of a series at the time when the award was announced: STUCK IN NEUTRAL and CHRISTOPHER CREED were clearly standalone at the time the prize was awarded. And honestly: neither of us researched ANGUS THONGS.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      What’s with the disdain for Angus, Thongs? It keeps popping up in small comments, and it breaks my heart. I know, it’s fluffy–and pink!–but has anyone looked at the language in it? Brilliant! Plus when it came out it was fresh and unexpected. I’ve read more than half of the series, and adored them all.

  4. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    karyn, I have to agree with you! I love Angus Thongs and don’t get the “it would never win now” ish. My aside wasn’t disdain, it was not wanting to look to see if Angus, Thongs was clearly a part of a series when it was published. The Monstrumologist, for example, was announced as part of a series (ie the PW announcement of the sale).

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Liz, good to know my love is shared. My recollection is that it was always intended to be a series launch– it doesn’t really conclude anything in that first volume, does it? (That might make a similar title less likely to win–and neatly gets us back on to the topic at hand!)

  5. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    karyn, i think part of the problem is fantasy — i’ll hold off saying more until your post. And the problem as i see it isn’t with fantasy (i adore fantasy) but with readers expectations, esp those who don’t read it.

  6. Karyn, if we decide that a book has to end in a way that creates a complete story arc, that’s a different criterion than “was the book intended as part of a series.” Even a standalone could suffer from lack of resolution.

    This whole thought experiment is making me wonder whether we should even go so far as to say a book should have a complete story arc. I want my books to have resolution (and I was infuriated by the Chaos Walking endings, which practically stopped in mid-sentence), but am I prepared to say the best book of the year will never be written that way? I don’t think I am.

    (Also, out of curiosity, I’m trying to remember whether there are any standalone classics in fiction that end without resolution or a complete story arc.)

  7. Emily H. says:

    When I finished The Pox Party, I actually thought the “part 1″ was just a bit of narrative convention; I thought that the book had said, in itself, everything that it needed to say, and while I was certainly curious about what was going to happen to Octavian, it wasn’t the same curiosity that I was left with after finishing the first book of Lord of the Rings. So I always have that in the back of my mind when I ask myself if a series book can stand on its own.

    There isn’t really a place in the Printz for the whomp of emotion that comes from a series carried over the course of multiple books — all the plotlines coming to a head, beloved characters dying or finally, finally kissing. That shuts out a lot of wonderful books, especially fantasy books, but it’s kind of hard for me to imagine a fair way to change that.

  8. Sophie Brookover says:

    Emily, I think the fair way to change that would be to remove the language about self-containment & a work being complete in itself from the Printz Policies & Procedures, which has happened — those rules are no longer technically in place.

    I don’t know if that language was removed in order to address the issue of series vs. standalone, but it’s gone now, which, in theory, frees the committee up to decide how to address the issue however they see fit.

  9. Mark Flowers says:

    @LizB and Karyn – I LOVE LOVE LOVE Angus, Thongs . . ., so add me to the camp.

    @Elizabeth – I just wrote up a post for The Hub (look for the post on Friday) about AM Jenkins’s novels, many of which explicitly end prior to what would ordinarily be considered the “resolution”. And I think they’re brilliant. So if her stand alone titles can do it (none are parts of series), then why not a first in a series?

    Having said that, I think it is interesting that most of the titles Sophie listed are totally self-sustaining, for me at least. I had no knowledge that FIRST PART was part of a series. AIRBORN and MONSTRUMOLOGIST have pretty clear beginnings, middles, and ends and didn’t need sequels. And I agree with Emily H that POX PARTY could easily have been using the “part 1″ thing as a gimmick (and as an aside, I wish it had – really disliked KINGDOM). I haven’t read the others, but from what I’ve gathered they seem to have similar situations. That’s probably at least partially due to the P&P Classic, along with just a standard bias when reading for a prize (or just for fun) to want it to have a “complete arc.” But I agree that a great book need not conform to an Aristotilean ideal of plot structure. Why not end in mid-sentence (Joyce comes to mind), as long as it has some real literary purpose, and is not just there to force us to buy the next book.

  10. Aside: there’s an interesting article in the Horn Book by Kathleen Horning chronicling complaints against the Newbery Award choices over the years (“too feminine,” “not appealing to children”), and defending the idea that “most distinguished” is the pure mandate.

  11. The blog Stacked has a fun post up today with mid-year Morris and Printz predictions (and brief discussions of each book).

  12. I am on the side: if it stands on its own, can be read and understood without reading the rest of the series, then it’s a go.

    For instance, Cashore’s “Fire” can be easily read without “Graceling.” But as much as I liked “Red Glove,” it really can’t stand on its own, and how fair is it to ask the committee to read every installment of every series to which a nominee belongs?

    @Karyn. “Jellicoe Road” is not a part of any series, loose or not. Might you mean “Saving Francesca” and “The Piper’s Son”?

  13. Cecilia says:

    Jellicoe is connected to Piper’s Son VERY loosely, but I wouldn’t say it’s a series. Rather, it’s an easter egg that pops up in the later book, kind of the same way that Sarah Dessen’s earlier characters show up briefly in her later books.

  14. What I completely forgot is that there is “The Gorgon in the Gully” too!

  15. Karyn Silverman says:

    Oh! I went to ALA and comments happened while I was gone!

    @Tatiana, I think of Jellicoe as being a part of the same series as Francesca and Piper’s Son, although less overtly connected. You can call it an Easter Egg if you prefer, as Cecelia does; my point is that these comprise a series in a different sense than, say, Harry Potter; they all interconnect but like First Part Last it’s a pretty nominal form of series (@Mark, I too didn’t know it was part of a series until much after reading it). Each volume tells a story, and the fact that other stories are out there with some or even many of the same characters, or set in the same world, is utterly immaterial. It doesn’t matter what order you read them in, because they are connected like real life, rather than as a single narrative thread. And yet we call both the interconnected and the interdependent tales “series” as though it’s all the same.

    Semantics! Is it all about semantics? You say series, I say standalone?

    @Emily, I absolutely agree– we need some way of recognizing the series that require sequential reading and are ultimately greater than the sum of the parts because the whole is vast and emotionally rich. I’ve always thought that the Edwards award from ALA (for lifetime achievement) is a great place for this sort of work to be recognized, but I wish we had an option that was about the work rather than the author.

  16. @Karyn- I love that idea! An achievement award for a series rather than the author! We’ll call it the Turner Award, in honor of its first recipient.

  17. Jess says:

    When DREAMQUAKE received an honor, I decided to try reading it without having read DREAMHUNTER and without knowing anything about the series. It was an interesting experiment that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise – I was confused about several things, but not enough that it detracted from the book – I thought it was marvelous and deserved the honor even though it doesn’t stand on its own 100% (I went back and read the first book and was surprised to see how much I’d been able to figure out without reading them in order). Ever since, I’ve been in the YES camp – give that series book an award. I’m still sad that none of MWT’s books have seen any Printz love…yet. To me, they’re in the same category as DREAMQUAKE – prior knowledge helps, but they’re still distinguished on their own.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    “The 2011 and 2012 committees adhered to those rules, even though they’re no longer codified within the Policies & Procedures. As a P&P nerd, I’m curious about when those two sentences were removed, and why.”

    Those lines from the old P&P are based on a similar line in the Newbery criteria which read thus: “The book must be a self-contained entity, not dependent on other media (i.e., sound or film equipment) for its enjoyment.” The meaning is much more clear here, isn’t it? And it has nothing to do with sequels. In fact, the only relevant line from the old P&P is that a book cannot be considered in relation to an author’s previous books (which is so obvious that it almost doesn’t even need to be written anywhere).

    Can you tell me what you mean when you say that the 2011 and 2012 committees adhered to the old P&P–and why you would do so? Do you mean that preparatory to discussing individual titles you discussed this issue and came to a mutual understanding that you would not consider sequels? Or do you mean something else?

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