Reading “Series Books” Backwards

Series books call attention to a special way of reading literature: over time. We can visit and then revisit Narnia or the Land of Oz. We can follow the further and developing adventures of Babar or the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. When we encounter series books and sequels, our predilection is to read these works in a “forward” fashion, in a progressive or evolutionary manner. But can we use this same way of “reading over time” in unconventional ways? Can we read works “backwards,” looking for prequels and progenitors, and come to new understandings of literary works?

1. Sendak’s Trilogy

Maurice Sendak has insisted that three of his picture books constitute a trilogy. Taking note of that, readers and critics often take them up in a chronological fashion in terms of their order of publication: 1) Where the Wild Things Are, 2) In the Night Kitchen, and 3) Outside Over There. In general, readers and critics have followed ideas and images from the relatively simple story of Where the Wild Things Are through the growing complexity of In the Night Kitchen to the dense profundity of Outside Over There. Others have also noted how Sendak’s earlier work Pierre in some ways anticipates Where the Wild Things Are, and they suggest how Pierre might be viewed as its prequel.

Imagine, however, that Sendak wrote these works in reverse order. Such an exercise in “reading backwards” might yield new and fresh understandings of Sendak’s books. In this experiment, it might seem to us that Sendak was continually working with ideas until they became simpler and simpler until he reached some “core” realization.

If Sendak’s trilogy is read backwards, Ida’s rococo aerobatics in Outside Over There might seem clearer when they are subsequently rephrased in Mickey’s aerial adventures in Night Kitchen. And Mickey’s nocturnal time in that imaginary hinterland known as the “Night Kitchen” might seem all the more understandable when subsequently reimagined as Max’s even simpler escapades in the Land of the Wild Things. Finally–linking the culminating scenes of Where the Wild Things Are (where Max is shedding his wolf suit) and Pierre (where Pierre tumbles out of the lion’s mouth)–we might view Pierre not only as a simpler and clearer version of Where the Wild Things Are but as the ultimate expression of the ideas Sendak has been struggling to get across.

We are only scratching the surface here; much deeper and more sophisticated realizations can be made by reading Sendak in this fashion. And this is only one example of what might be yielded by a “backwards” reading of series books.

2. Tarzan’s Progenitors

Who is my father, in this world, in this house,
At the spirit’s base?
My father’s father, his father’s father, his–
Shadows like winds
Go back to the parent . . .
At the head of the past.
     –Wallace Stevens, “The Irish Cliffs of Moher”

To read “backwards” is to seek out parents. And, as in real life and in the era of DNA testing, we may sometimes encounter surprises. We may sometimes discover that a work is a literary bastard, an illegitimate offspring, an unofficial sequel. In this way too, our notion of a “series book” can be expanded.

Take, as a special moment, this short description of Tarzan in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes:

The young Lord Greystoke was indeed a strange and warlike figure, his mass of black hair falling to his shoulders . . . with the noble poise of his handsome head upon those broad shoulders, and the fire of life and intelligence in those fine, clear eyes, he might readily have typified some demigod of a wild and warlike bygone people of his ancient forest.

Burroughs’ story (of a boy raised by apes) is really a sequel to Rudyard Kipling’s stories in The Jungle Books (of a boy raised by wolves). Consider Kipling’s description of Mowgli:

As he stood there in the red light of the oil lamp, strong, tall and beautiful, his long black hair sweeping over his shoulders, the knife swinging at his neck, and his head crowned with a wreath of jasmine, he might easily have been mistaken for some wild god of a Jungle legend.

Burroughs always claimed that Tarzan was not Mowgli’s offspring and that he never read Kipling’s Jungle Books until after he had begun his Tarzan series, but the facts seem to suggest otherwise. Burroughs did admit publicly, however, that his favorite childhood books included Samuel Clemens’ The Prince and the Pauper and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. So, perhaps, we ought to also seek out Tarzan’s parents there.

The Prince and the Pauper bears some resemblance to Burroughs’ book. Clemens’ novel tells its famous story of switched places, of how a prince suddenly finds himself in the hurly burly world of the lower classes and survives. Burroughs’ novel takes this a bit further and tells how the young Lord Greystoke suddenly finds himself in the hurly burly of the jungle and among the lower orders (the apes) and how he survives.

Likewise, Burroughs’ other favorite childhood book, Little Lord Fauntleroy, tells the story of a boy (the offspring of nobility) who finds himself among working-class people in America. And, like Tarzan (Lord Greystoke), Little Lord Fauntleroy ascends from these circumstances.

But since we are talking about “unauthorized sequels” and “illegitimate offspring,” we might also note a further curious thing about Little Lord Fauntleroy: Mark Twain claimed to be the father of this work. The Prince and the Pauper was published a few years before Little Lord Fauntleroy and Clemens had sent an inscribed copy to Burnett. When Fauntleroy appeared, Clemens felt that Burnett had borrowed from his book and contemplated a copyright–or paternity–suit.

But we can go further. If Clemens had a legitimate claim as the actual father of Fauntleroy, perhaps Louisa May Alcott ought also to have considered a suit and claimed to be its mother. In Little Women, Alcott had introduced Laurie (an effeminate boy) and his grumpy grandfather Mr. Lawrence (who had disapproved of his late son’s marriage to an Italian woman). In Fauntleroy, Burnett seems to have lifted this idea: presenting her story of Cedric (another effeminate boy) and his grumpy grandfather the Earl of Dorincourt (who disapproved of his late son’s marriage to an American woman).

What can we finally say, then, about Burroughs’ Tarzan? It is an unofficial “series” book; and the series begins with Little Women, continues right on through The Prince and the Pauper and Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Jungle Books, until it arrives at Tarzan of the Apes. Reading “backwards,” in other words, we encounter a secret history of literary illegitimacy: Tarzan’s father seems to have been Rudyard Kipling and his mother Frances Hodgson Burnett; on his mother’s side, his grandfather was Samuel Clemens and his grandmother Louisa May Alcott. Here is an expanded notion of what constitutes a “series book.”

3. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Canon Making

Literature classes, like some anthologies, are often organized in a chronological fashion. This can sometimes create the mistaken notion that the evolution of literature has been a seamless thing, free of accidents. American literature, for example, might seem an inevitable march from Washington Irving, through Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, to T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison.

But the truth is that any vision of evolution or progress is implicitly a “backwards” reading. If we now pay attention to Walt Whitman or Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickinson, it is because later writers chose them as their forefathers or foremothers–chose them and not other possible authors, who then remain aside and apart from this otherwise direct line of succession. In this way, later writers engage (almost invisibly) in canon making, defining the “worthy” literary works of the past that merit attention. Antecedents become precedents.

The full name of the heroine of Kate Douglas Wiggins’ Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is Rebecca Rowena Sawyer Randall. The name “Sawyer” provides one clue. In Clemens’ novel, Tom Sawyer’s sweetheart is Becky Thatcher, who is called “Rebecca” once in the novel. The name of Wiggins’ heroine almost invites us to imagine what a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer might look like, a sequel where Tom and Becky marry and have a daughter called (say) “Rebecca Sawyer.” Indeed, it isn’t surprising, consequently, to encounter echoes of Clemens’ novel in Wiggins’ later book–especially in Wiggins’ schoolroom scenes.

But Wiggins’ character is also named “Rebecca Rowena.” As another character in the novel observes:  “Both? Your mother was generous.” The reference here is to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe with its two heroines: the dark-complected Rebecca and the fair Lady Rowena. But what is even more interesting is that, in creating her character’s name, Wiggins has seen something and linked Scott’s Ivanhoe with Clemens’ Tom Sawyer. Again, antecedents become precedents.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, then, is something like an anthology of literature that invites us to see a line of succession. In Ivanhoe, Scott’s Rebecca is attractively dark because she is Jewish, and the villain (Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert) is taken with her and attempts to forcibly steal her virtue. James Fenimore Cooper revised Ivanhoe in The Last of the Mohicans. Here, Scott’s Rebecca is renamed Cora, and her appeal and dark complexion comes from a touch of African blood. Instead of a Frenchman, Cooper makes the seducer a villainous Indian, Magua.

The Last of the Mohicans, in turn, inspired much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While it is interesting how much Huckleberry Finn resembles Cooper’s character Natty Bumppo, what is more to the point is Twain’s adoption of Cooper’s would-be rapist and Indian villain Magua in his creation of Injun Joe. But, since he was writing a children’s book, Clemens had to avoid the central subject in Scott and Cooper; in Tom Sawyer there is no talk of rape, and Twain turns his predecessors’ maiden into the aged Widow Douglas. In her own book for children, Wiggins took a different turn and avoided the carnal subjects of Scott and Cooper in another fashion: she deleted the Indian and would-be rapist, but she restored the maiden (making her both dark and fair, Rebecca and Rowena).

Here, then is a phenomenon worth noting: a book where the very name of the title character defines its antecedents, a novel that announces itself as a “series book.” If you want to understand Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm then, start with Ivanhoe, then read The Last of the Mohicans and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Moreover, this “series” may be continued. After the publication of her book, Wiggins invited her readers to write or imagine the next book in this “series.” Wiggins received so many letters asking for a sequel to Rebecca that she finally composed a form letter to be sent out in reply:

No, I shall decidedly not write a sequel to ‘Rebecca,’ because I feel that it might disappoint my readers. You see, there always is a sequel to every story, but it is thought out by each of its readers for himself; consequently, a book has as many sequels as it has readers. . . . My correspondence demonstrates at least that its readers are anxious to go on with it, but Rebecca is theirs now, no longer mine, and their accounts of her further life would interest me much more than my own could possibly do.

You can, of course, take up Wiggins’ invitation.


  1. Take one of your favorite books (it can be a series book) and imagine a sequel set in our own times–for example: “Tom Swift and his Nuclear Submarine.” Take one of your favorite books and imagine a prequel–for example: what was Mole’s life like before the opening of The Wind in the Willows? Just as the acorn becomes an oak and not an alder, a good sequel or prequel has to be consistent with the work it based upon. Now look at your own sequel or prequel. What things did you carry forward or backwards? In what ways were you consistent with the original work? Noticing these consistencies, what then does your sequel or prequel reveal about what was in the original work?
  1. Consider a set of stories in a series. For example, the Star Wars episodes. Do they make sense at all if they are considered in reverse order? What new views do you have of stories if you think about them in this backwards fashion? What is the best order in which to see the Star Wars movies? Here is the order of their release: Star Wars (A New Hope) (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983), then The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005). Here is their order in terms of events: Phantom Menace (I), Attack of the Clones (II), Revenge of the Sith (III), New Hope (IV), Empire Strikes Back (V), and Return of the Jedi (VI).
  1. “Series books” often imply a clear sense of time: this happened “before” and this happened “after.” What is the experience when time is “mixed up”? Consider the simultaneous presence of the past, present, and future in “Rip Van Winkle” or Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or in films like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future.

A version of this essay originally appeared in TALL: Teaching and Learning Literature with Children and Young Adults (Jan/Feb 1996).


15. July 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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