by Scott Brown

Series Books

Hardy Boys: Hidden Harbor Mystery

It was a real Horatio Alger story. In the 1890s, dime novels aimed at teen-agers proved immensely popular, selling millions of copies each year. Edward Stratemeyer, a prolific and ambitious writer, had rattled around the publishing world for a decade, alternately pumping out pot-boiler tales and editing and publishing story magazines. It was all he had wanted to do since he was a boy—he printed his first stories when he was just fourteen.

Stratemeyer's first big break came in 1898 when the elderly and ailing Horatio Alger Jr.—the author of more than 100 inspiring novels for boys—asked him to finish one of his incomplete manuscripts. Stratemeyer agreed and ultimately acquired the copyright to a number of unfinished Alger books, which he polished and published under Alger's name. In 1899, Stratemeyer had his first real success on his own. The Rover Boys at School appeared under the pseudonym Arthur Winfield and changed publishing history. The Rover Boys series ultimately ran to thirty books and sold millions of copies.

Seizing on that success and the popularity of his Horatio Alger novels, Stratemeyer founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate to produce new series for young boys and girls. He envisioned hiring authors for a fixed fee to write books based on Stratemeyer's outlines. The syndicate would ultimately sell something like a billion books by the end of the 20th century, and it would spawn dozens of imitators.

The syndicate's first big success was The Bobbsey Twins, launched in 1904 under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope. Those books were followed by Tom Swift's technological adventure tales in 1910 (written using the name "Victor Appleton"). By 1926, the year before Stratemeyer launched the Hardy Boys detective series under the name Franklin Dixon, a staggering 98% of American children said their favorite books was a novel in one of his syndicate's three dozen series.

After the Hardy Boys, Stratemeyer came up with a companion series centered on a girl sleuth named Nancy Drew, whose stories were written under the pen name Carolyn Keene. Stratemeyer died in 1930, and his two daughters took over the enterprise and expanded it for decades.

The number of series for boys and girls started by Stratemeyer and others during the first half of the twentieth century—the golden age for the genre—is immense, and almost every series has its devoted collectors.

The bookseller Chris Volk of, in Ione, California, U.S.A. says these books pose special problems for collectors. Publishers reissued the books many times without changing the date on the copyright page. Most collectors, Volk says, are satisfied with early (but not necessarily first) editions of the books in dust jackets. Many series were rewritten over time to adapt to advances in technology, and the rewrites, Volk says, "dumbed them down a lot."

Vic Zoschak, of Tavistock Books in Alameda, California, U.S.A., agrees that identifying first editions is "problematic," except for the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Judy Bolton girl-detective series by Margaret Sutton, which have detailed bibliographies (see reference list on right). "If you are going to buy a first edition of the Hardy Boys, don't do it unless the bookseller cites a Heffelfinger or Carpentieri number," Zoschak said, referring to the authors of two extensive bibliographies. If the bookseller doesn't have a bibliography, they may not know what they have.

Ten Great Children's Series

With literally hundreds of series to pick from, the hardest part about collecting these very popular books can be deciding which ones to pursue. Many collectors start by assembling complete sets in any edition and then working back to the earlier copies.

Tom Swift by "Victor Appleton"

Tom Swift by Victor Appleton

While not the first Statemeyer syndicate series to strike a chord with readers, Tom Swift is far more popular with collectors than the earlier Rover Boys or Bobbsey Twin books. In 1954, the Stratemeyer syndicate updated the series with Tom Swift Jr. books, but they lacked some of the magic of the originals. Pictured is the third Tom Swift adventure, originally published in 1910. The cover shows the series’ fascination with the latest technology.

This Copy | All Copies of Tom Swift and His Airship

Hardy Boys by "Franklin W. Dixon"

Hardy Boys by Thomas W. Dixon

This iconic boy-detective series has entertained generations of boys since the first three books landed on bookstore shelves in 1927. Revised versions appeared beginning in 1959 and the 58th and last book in the original series was published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1979. Simon & Schuster took over the franchise and has put out two hundred additional books since then. Original first editions are rare, expensive, and hard to identify without a bibliography.

This Copy | All Copies of The Hidden Harbor Mystery

Nancy Drew by "Carolyn Keene"

Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene

When it was initially published, Nancy Drew outsold the Hardy Boys, dispelling the myth that girls weren’t interested in adventure stories. Mildred Wirt Benson wrote many of the first Nancy Drew books, a fact that became public during legal proceedings in 1980. Like all Stratemeyer authors, she received a flat fee for her work ($125 to $250), and no additional royalties when the books sold millions of copies.

This Copy | All Copies of the Bungalow Mystery

Judy Bolton by Margaret Sutton

Judy Bolton by Margaret Sutton

The Judy Bolton series is quite different from others in the genre. Margaret Sutton was a real person and her character, an amateur detective, ages from book to book (most series characters tend to stay the same age) and even marries. Many of the events were based on Sutton’s life. The series has 38 books and ran from 1932 to 1967.

This Copy | All Copies of The Trail of the Green Doll

Sue Barton by Helen Dore Boylston

Sue Barton by Helen Dore Boylston

While only seven books long, the Sue Barton nurse series was very popular with readers and collectors. Helen Boylston worked as a nurse in France during World War One and had a successful career in the medical field. She wrote her nursing novels from 1936 to 1952 and drew on her professional experiences. In the novels, Barton ages, rises through the ranks at the hospital, and gets married—an unusual level of realism for a series.

This Copy | All Copies of Sue Barton Senior Nurse

Cherry Ames by "Helen Wells"

Cherry Ames by Helen Wells

This 27-book series about a nurse who solves mysteries on the side began in 1943 and the initial novels had patriotic themes related to World War Two. The series ran until 1968, and many nurses who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s were inspired to join the profession because of these books.

This Copy | All Copies of Cherry Ames Island Nurse

Rick Brant by "John Blaine"

Rick Brant by John Blaine

This post-war series, which started in 1947, combines science and espionage plots with exotic locations. While not nearly as popular as Tom Swift, Rick Brant has many devoted fans who pursue the 23 books published up to 1968. Hal Goodwin, who wrote most of the books, revealed his participation in the series and signed a number of copies—a real rarity for series-book authors.

This Copy | All Copies of The Rocket’s Shadow

Chip Hilton by Clair Bee

Chip Hilton by Clair Bee

Clair Bee was a popular and successful college basketball coach from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968. Book collectors remember him best for his 23 sports novels featuring Chip Hilton, which were published from 1948 to 1965. Hilton plays basketball, football, and baseball. He also ages, moving gradually from high school to college sports.

This Copy | All Copies of Chil Hilton Dugout Jinx

Trixie Beldon

Trixie Beldon

This 39-book series about a tomboy detective premiered in 1948. The first six novels were written by Julie Campbell. From no. 7 on, Kathryn Kenny is listed as the author, but many different writers contributed to the series. Unlike most series, some of the most-sought-after titles in the series are paperbacks. Numbers 35 to 39 came out in small numbers and the publisher soon dropped the series, making them hard to find.

This Copy | All Copies of the Pet Show Mystery (#37)

Unfortunate Events

The Bad Beginning

The 1980s saw a resurgence in series books, with the R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books, the Baby-sitters Club (written by Ann Martin and other writers), and Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants attracting millions of young readers, but few collectors are showing interest, at least so far. Lemony Snicket’s (pseudonym of Daniel Handler) macabre and funny Series of Unfortunate Events books, however, has drawn both readers and collectors, with first editions of the early titles in the 13-book series fetching serious money.

This Copy | All Copies of The Bad Beginning

Fine Books & Collections Subscribe to Fine Books & Collections with this special discounted offer.

Book Collections & Series