There is some disagreement among scholars about the beginning of fiction specifically targeted towards girls, but most place it in the mid-to-late nineteenth century¹. Literary scholar Nina Baym, for example, identifies 1868 as the beginning year for girls' fiction, when Martha Finley's Elsie Dismore series & Louisa May Alcott's Little Women were both published².
Series books for children also originated during the mid-nineteenth century, while series books specifically for girls began to flourish at the beginning of the twentieth³ ⁴. Boys' books of the time were read by both boys and girls, while girls' books were generally read exclusively by girls⁵.
Nineteenth century girls' fiction tended to focus on domestic life: girls and young women in home, family, and local neighborhood situations⁶.
While sentimental Victorian series continued to be popular in the early twentieth century, girls' series focus broadened to include "high school, college, sports, adventure, mystery, and the great outdoors"⁷.
School series of the time were notable for the fact that nearly all of the female protagonists attended college, while in the United States only a small percentage of girls actually did - 4% in 1910, for example⁸.
Between 1910-1920 adventure series for girls became popular, focusing on outdoor adventures, airplanes, and especially automobiles⁹.
With the publication of the first Nancy Drew titles in 1930, mystery stories came to dominate the girls' series market and continued to be highly popular in the 1940s and 1950s¹⁰.
During World War II, girls' books were part of a popular culture effort to encourage support for wartime sacrifice on the home front. Women in these books might have careers such as nurses or journalists investigating spies. Some of these career series, particularly the Cherry Ames and Sue Barton nursing series, remained popular after the war as the female protagonists in those books challenged gender stereotypes and patriarchal hierarchy¹¹.
Our collection spans through the 1950s, but in the later half of the twentieth century, romance series such as Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High would became popular¹².
¹Shirley Foster, What Katy Read : Feminist Re-Readings of “Classic” Stories for Girls (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995), 2-3.
²LuElla D’Amico, Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture (Lanham : Lexington Books, 2016), ix.
³University of Minnesota and Children’s Literature Research Collections, Girls Series Books : A Checklist of Titles Published 1840-1991 (Minneapolis, Minn.: Children’s Literature Research Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries, 1992), vii.
⁴Carolyn Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths : Girls’ Series Books in America (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 12.
⁵Karen Stang, Series Books for the American Girl, 1910--1940.” (Masters thesis, The University of Chicago, 1980), 58.
⁶Foster, What Katy Read, 4.
⁷Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths, 12, 19.
⁸Jane S. Smith, “Plucky Little Ladies and Stout-Hearted Chums: Serial Novels for Girls, 1900–1920,” Prospects 3 (October 1978): 166.
⁹Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths, 33.
¹⁰Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths, 49, 66, 94.
¹¹Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths, 66, 72, 79.
¹²D’Amico, Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture, x.