Special Collections and University Archives

Re-Imaging in Girls’ Series Books

From the earliest, highly moralistic examples in the 1840s to the twenty-first century examples echoing the lifestyles and values of today’s youth, girls’ books in general and girls’ series in particular have shown a marked evolution. Many of the most popular series in the nineteenth-century—Jacob Abbott’s “Lucy” series, Joanna Mathews’ “Bessie” books, and Martha Finley’s “Elsie” books, to name but a few—had heavy religious undertones and could much more readily be called fictional “etiquette books” than captivating adventure stories for young readers.

For boys, this scenario changed even before the end of the nineteenth century, with series such as the immensely popular Horatio Alger titles. This change was signaled by Alger sub-series such as “Brave and Bold,” “Frank and Fearless” and “Luck and Pluck.” For girls, the change would come later and more gradually. The pathway to a more daring literature had perhaps been paved by Louisa May Alcott’s timeless Little Women, which in 1868 had presented a new image of an emancipated woman in the character of Jo March. By the end of the century, major publishers of girls’ series realized that girls insistently were becoming more liberated and were generally bored with the constant “thou shalt, thou shalt not” instruction of their literature, to the extent of surreptitiously reading their brothers’ more exciting adventure stories.

In 1900 L. Frank Baum sent Dorothy, a young girl from Kansas, on a series of exciting adventures in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and on subsequent exploits in the mythical kingdom of Oz. More importantly, Dorothy—bright, resourceful, and above all, essentially independent–provided a new role model for girls. Although not all heroines in new girls’ series broke the traditional mold of docility and obedience, many did. Some of the earliest such series were clearly spinoffs from popular boys’ series, with essentially the same characters changed from male to female; but the obvious borrowing hardly mattered. Girls now had new role models of their own sex who often demonstrated the same traits—courage, spunk, rational thinking, and quick wits—that characterized the juvenile heroes of boys’ books.

The evolution of girls’ series books continues today. While some of the most popular early series continue to be written (“Nancy Drew,” “Bobbsey Twins,” “Oz Stories”), new series appear every year. The number of series created since 1960 is legion. While mystery and adventure stories continue to be popular, many of the old genres have all but disappeared. Today’s girls’ series seem, on the whole, to be more oriented to romance and group acceptance and popularity.

The books included in this exhibit were chosen to exemplify the many genres of girls’ series that have appeared in more than 170 years.

-Dr. William K. Finley

An Exhibit
Hodges Reading Room
February 15 – May 15, 2010

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