When Characters Age in a Series
In today's publishing market, a series or a trilogy is bookselling gold. Booksellers/Librarians love knowing that a book that kids have gotten excited about has more volumes coming, and that further adventures are in store for a beloved character.
What can and does pose a problem- both for authors and for readers, is when the main character ages over the course of the series from child to young adult or teen. Take Harry Potter for instance, where Harry goes from 10 in the first book to 17 in the last book. As Harry ages, the maturity and intensity level of the series also increases, thus inciting many debates on whether to keep the entire series together in the children's section of the bookstore/library, or to shelve the later books in the Young Adult section. This also of course posed problems for parents who had introduced their young children to Harry, but were uncomfortable allowing them to continue with the series as it became more intense.
I encountered a similar problem as a bookseller years ago with William Nicolson's dystopian Windsinger trilogy. Having read and loved the first book, I comfortably sold it to a 10-year-old reader, who also loved it. When the second book released, I eagerly read it, only to find that there were people being burned alive in monkey cages. Suddenly, I had the unfortunate task of explaining why she couldn't and shouldn't continue with the series at that point. The fortunate part was I did read the second book and could speak to the content, but often times with a series, I simply have to trust that nothing freaky is going to happen in the next book.
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books are another example of a series that age the character. Alice goes from 6th grade to high school graduation, (not counting 3 prequels that feature Alice in 3rd-5th grades) and as Alice matures, so do the books and her experiences. In fact, several of the titles featuring Alice as a teen have been challenged for their frank treatment of teen issues such as sex and drinking. I've personally shelved the more recent titles (from Junior Year onward) in our YA section due to content, but it does make it confusing for shoppers who logically expect to find all of the books in one area, and disappointing for the reader who is suddenly too young to keep reading them.
This leads to the other challenge of aging your characters too drastically- the risk of losing your reader due aging your character out of their bracket- especially when they start out being the same age as the main character in the first book. The idea of the audience growing up with a character really only works once. While the maturing of a character might help to retain the reader's interest while they wait for the next book to release, when readers discover the series after it's already complete, you don't have the luxury of having them wait a year or two in between books. As a child, I remember reading the Little House and the Anne books right up until the point where their experience exceeded the realm of what I could relate to or was interested in. As an eight or nine-year-old, characters getting married and having their own children didn't interest me, and I abandoned the books at that point.
So as a writer or a reader, what are your thoughts on aging characters in a series? What approach do you take to your writing, and which do you prefer reading?