Never underestimate the power of a good book series, even if it’s not great literature, to spark an interest in reading. It might just develop into a reading habit that leads to great literature or even evolves into a career.
When I was in fifth grade at Halls Elementary School, Mrs. George conducted a contest in our class to see who could read the most books. She gave each student a small envelope inside of which were several ruled 3 x 5 cards. We each wrote our name on the flap of the envelope and thumb-tacked it, cards inside, onto a bulletin board. Mrs. George then took us to the library, where we selected whatever book(s) we wanted to read for the contest. When we finished each book, we recorded its title on the index card and chose another book.
I don’t know who won the contest (it wasn’t me), but in a sense I did win because that contest began for me a life-long habit of reading. The books I chose back then not only set me on the road to reading but also helped guide my career choice. I found through that contest that I enjoyed reading books in two particular series, one of which developed in me an interest in and love of history.
The first series, the one that hooked me on reading, was the Hardy Boys mystery series. Of the 50 or so titles that made up the original segment of the series, I ended up reading about 44 or 45 of them. The titles are still vivid in my mind, as are the cover illustrations.
These books were not great literature by any measure; they were formula books. The basic plot line was always the same: the Hardy brothers are confronted with a mystery that baffles not only the local police but also their detective father, they set about solving the case with the occasional help of their “chums,” and they solve it after having some exciting and nail-biting adventures. When the publisher began revising the books and adding new, “modern” titles, and when the TV series came out, I was disappointed because neither the new books nor the TV version lived up to the standard that the original books had set. But the books in the original series kept me turning the pages under the bed covers using a flashlight long after I should have been asleep. And they made me realize that an entire world awaited me between the covers of books.
The second book series that influenced me, the one that helped steer me into a career in teaching and writing about historical topics, was the Random House Landmark series of histories and biographies. I still remember the individual titles and cover illustrations on the books from that series. It was from those books, not my history textbook, that I really learned about the Pony Express, West Point, the military heroes of our nation, the battles they fought to win and maintain our freedoms, and many other topics.
I remember that the title on the spine of a book was what first caught my attention. I lifted the book from the shelf and looked at the cover illustration–for a long time. Then I paged through the book, gaining an overview of what it was about and looking at any illustrations or photos that it included. If you study the accompanying photos of some of those books, is it any wonder that I became interested in American history? In those books was excitement, adventure–and I lived vicariously the events recounted in them.
During my early years of teaching junior high students, I bought several of the old Landmark books that I found in used book stores or at yard sales to stock my classroom library. Whenever students finished a test or some other seatwork, they knew that I expected them to be busy with some other constructive work until the rest of the class finished, and one option was reading those books. Many of the students did read them and, most gratifying to me, they voluntarily discussed them with me. When I shifted careers and left the classroom, I donated the books to a school. I sort of wish I had kept them. Looking at the covers, reading the titles, and remembering the joy they gave me when I first read them, I sort of want to read them again.
Unlike the Hardy Boys series, which used many mediocre ghostwriters under the pseudonym “Franklin W. Dixon,” Random House had some world-class authors and experts in history writing the Landmark books. They included such people as William L. Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, John Gunther, Pearl S. Buck, F. Van Wyck Mason, Richard Tregaskis, Bob Considine, Robert Penn Warren,C. S. Forester, John Toland, and Ted W. Lawson. Lawson’s writing (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) really snagged my interest because he wrote from first-hand experience as one of the pilots on the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo in the early months of World War II.
Yes, these two series of books hold a special place in my curriculum vitae. They helped lay a foundation for reading that has served me well over the years. Do you have a similarly influential series that you would like to share? If so, I’d be interested in hearing from you about it.