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Popular Books versus Quality Literature:
School Library Collection Development

Amanda Credaro 1999-2006

"Boys and girls can be exposed to much of the finest literature of
our culture, but if their imaginations are not kindled by some
spark which relates them to the spoken work or the printed page,
their literary experiences may become a series of unrelated sound
utterances, or a procession of black and white blurred sticks,
walking across a snow-white page.
Carslon, 1970:22


The questionable merit of popular fiction must be weighed against the library users' preferences. However, it is important to analyse the concept of quality in regard to literature, and examine the most prominent characteristics of popular fiction to identify any possible redeeming features.

Within this framework, the role of the school library must be considered with regard to the educational outcomes to be achieved from exposure to literature in general.

The Concept of Quality

Jacobs and Tunnell (1996:15) provide a basis on which to evaluate what is generally a subjective value judgment. Stating that style and language, together with character and plot must be analysed, with books of "lasting value" being multifaceted and "recreate the very texture of life". In addition, Jacobs and Tunnell require the presence of a "major dramatic question" in order that a literary work be deemed one of quality.

Society's frequently percieves that works with humourous content are not to be taken seriously (Bauer, 1995:1) , but there is a connection between humor and poignancy. Many acknowledged works of literary merit have humourous content, and considering children relate well to humour it is self-evident that this uniquely human concept be well represented in children's literature.

The forced assumption of adult duties by children of single parent families is examined by Gleitzman (1998) in Bumface . Whilst the title and the cover illustration hint at light reading material, the pathos demonstrated in the onerous duties of 12 year old Angus in caring for his younger brother and baby sister are highlighted by flashes of childish imagination. On his way to steal a toy from another boy's bag, Angus thinks "I bet pirates do a lot of work on foot" (p 134). Angus's desire to be included in the school play, in the role a pirate, are thwarted by this family commitments. The plot expands with his meeting with Rindi, an Indian girl being forced into an arranged marriage. This development allows Angus the opportunity to compare his own situation with others, and miserable though his life may be, he concludes that there are worse situations than his. Checking on his sleeping siblings, Angus demonstrates his affection for his family, dysfunctional though they are. "They can't help having hopeless dads and a busy mum, he thought. None of us can. He smoothed their sweaty hair off their foreheads and picked a bit of mashed potato and pumpkin off Imogen's scalp. He couldn't imagine being without them. He didn't want to be without them. They'd only need him full-time for another sixteen or seventeen years and the rest of his life would be his own. Angus sighed. It wasn't that long really" (p 60). This book demonstrates the recreation of "the rich fabric of life" (Jacobs and Tunnell, 1996:15), and satisfies the criteria work of 'quality', regardless of the humourous content.

In writing about childhood issues such as sibling rivalry, anxiety and coping with school, Gleeson utilises literary devices acknowledged as being fundamental to quality literature. In Hannah Plus One (Gleeson, 1996), a Year One student with twin older sisters shows character development in evolving through various stages. A number of strategies are employed for dealing with the protagonist's fears; an imaginary friend (p 13), misdirected anger (p 33), and ultimately acceptance (p 70) and pleasure in meeting her new baby sister (p 74).

The heart-wrenching content of Gilbert's Ghost Train (Metzenthen, 1997) is complimented by writing style, plot progression, and character development. In analysing the emotions of an adolescent Martin in coping with the onset and progression of his younger brother's leukaemia, the author treats the subject with sensitivity, compassion and insight.

Martin's imagery reflects his concerns over his brother's ultimate fate: "A big park for heaven would be fine, I guess. If it didn't rain, and there was a snack bar and a bike track." (p 36). Unsworth (1990, 224) notes that "good children's literature" creates multiple meanings and ambiguities. The uncertainty as to Gilbert's origins, together with the book's ending contribute to this book's classification as a work of quality literature.

In examining Martin's emotions before, during and after his brother's death, Metzenthen delineates the grieving process, thereby contributing to the book's bibliotheroputic value (Hoffman, 1994: 5). In addition to containing its literary virtues, Gilbert's Ghost Train is has considerable merit from a sociological perspective.

The science fiction theme is exploited in Eye to Eye (Jinks, 1997), which won the award for the Australian Book of the Year - Older Readers 1998. In examining a child from a primitive culture encountering space travellers, the author demonstrates applications of critical thinking in deciding how to carry a lizard (p 62) and developing strategies in overcoming a seemingly overwhelming disadvantage of attack by well developed technologies (p 138). A significant part of the contextual language is idiomatic, with Jansi suggesting anatomically impossible actions (p 103). That part of the dialogue attributable to the computer PIM is of a much higher order, thereby creating an extension of language skills by the readers. Although PIM is concerned about "no comparative terms of reference" (p 59), these higher order language occurrences occur in sufficient contextual setting to allow a decoding of meaning; the fact that there is no common language in which to communicate between the desert dweller and the computer is an obvious translation.

The Concept of 'Popular Fiction'

Popular fiction may be considered to be that element of literature which is popular in the sense that it is frequently 'requested or desired' (Roget's Thesaurus, 1980: 865) or it is 'favoured' by the users (Ibid: 897). Materials of this nature are not considered to be popular in the sense of 'celebrated' (Ibid : 873) or 'approved" (Ibid : 931). Indeed, Foster (1995:188) notes that while it appeals to many readers, and may well contain a strong moral message, 'popular' fiction does not extend readers and is often poorly written.

Coppell (1998: 7) notes that 'popular culture' is characterised by 'repetition and seriality'. The 'Goosebumps' series features a variety of instances of supposed terror, such as being eaten by various monsters, simply vanishing, or being otherwise disposed of.

A Night in Terror Tower (Stine, 1995) accompanies the 12 year old narrator and her 10 year old brother on a journey through time, with all the usual terrifying experiences that characterise the 'Goosebumps' series. There are numerous examples of behaviour that are typical of this age group, with Sue poking her tongue out (p 16) and Eddie playing tricks (p 34) on adults. However, there are also instances of high level cognitive evaluation, such as when Sue attempts to rationalise her sense of deja vou (p 19). These contradictory behaviour patterns reveal the child from an adult perspective, and disrupt the continuity of the story.

The "Aussie Bites" Series is designed for younger readers than "Goosebumps". The typeface is large, the language simple and chapters are short. However, the themes exploited in Peg Leg Meg (Bodsworth, 1999) are not appropriate to the developmental stage of the target audience. Apart from the general glorification of the criminal act of piracy, the book appears to condone drunkenness (p 9) and accepts attempted murder (p 40), kidnapping (p 24,) and torture (p 24) as suitable content for this age group. The plot is thin, with the child protagonist being cast adrift on an island and saved by the intervention of a parrot.

There is no discernible character development, with all characters remaining unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. Commercial appeal is achieved through the cut-out 'bite' from top the corner of the book, with readers being encouraged to "collect" (back cover) the entire series.

The Missing Pony Pal (Betancourt, 1997) from the 'Pony Pals' series is a book with such purile language, plot and characterisation, it is difficult to comprehend its popularity in today's culture. Lulu's accident where her pony 'Snow White' is injured during gymkhana practice provides the dramatic climax to the book, but occurs at the end of Chapter 1. All future action relates back to this incident early in the book, and the success at the gymkhana provides an anticlimactic ending. Plot development is weak and characterisations stereotypical. Illustrations incorporated into the text are drawn with childlike naivity, and are inserted to lend an aura of authenticity to the story. The inclusion of a 'tear out' book mark and swap cards demonstrates a commercial exploitation of the reader, as does the promise of the inclusion of a silver bracelet in the next book. It is noted that works of quality literature do not rely on such 'gimmicks' in order to draw readership.

Variation in Quality of Popular Literature

There is variation in quality, both within and between series (Astill ,1992: 17). As continuation of theme and charactor are attributes of series books, the use of formula allows numerous authors to contribute to the inventory. However, depending on the formula, some series book have less merit than others.

The Truth About Ryan (Pascal, 1997) from the Sweet Valley University subseries of the Sweet Valley suite is typical of this series. Lacking character development, the major protagonists continually encounter the same situations with the same outcomes, not only throughout the course of a monograph, but also throughout the entire series. Starting with Sweet Valley , the series generated 'Sweet Valley Kids', 'Sweet Valley Twins', and 'Sweet Valley University'. Released in 1999 were 'Sweet Valley Junior High' and 'Sweet Valley Senior Year', with a 'Sweet Valley' musical planned for later in the year (Random House, 1999). Whilst the twins are shown at different ages and in different settings between the series, their personalities do not develop beyond Elisabeth's pragmatism and Jessica's casualness. Character development is one of the primary characteristics of quality literature (Mills, 1995; 1).

Further, the stereotypical presentation of female roles (Litton, 1996; 1) is a feature of the series. Fearing that young females may compare themselves to the characters in the books, Mitchell (1995;1) notes that all the characters introduced are "spectacularly attractive". This stereotypical gender treatment renders these books as generally unsuitable for school libraries.

However, the 'Nancy Drew on Campus' series exhibits many superficial similarities to the 'Sweet Valley University' series, but an analysis of the content reveals the higher standards set in the 'Nancy Drew' series. Love On-Line (Keene, 1997) presents a scenario with suitable role models (Sugarman, 1996: 1). Keene's collage composed of a foreign film discussion over "cappuccinos and biscotti" (pp 2, 4) is preferable to the portrayal of a head lifeguard resigning from his post to pursue his alcoholicism (The Truth About Ryan, 1997: 97). Janie's inability to socialise due to study commitments (Keene, 1997: 7) is preferable to the lifestyle choices made by the protagonists in the 'Sweet Valley University' books. Legge (1997: 11) states that the "role of literature is to reflect society's conversation and concerns", and the warnings carried in the text of Love On-Line concerning the caution required with personal meetings with "chat-pals" (pp 9, 48) are warranted and timely. Further, the narrative of Love On-Line demonstrates a deep commitment to background research, with information technology issues such as chat room protocol (p 36), email domains (p 132), and legal ramifications (p 146) being accurate and well-written.

Whilst Dow (1998:187) notes that publishers have altered the presentation of books to attract children from a culture dominated by audiovisual entertainment, the quality of the resulting works (Saltman, 1997: 25) appears to have been sacrificed to commercial considerations.

Identification of Quality Literature

Children are 'uninformed and inexperienced' readers (MacDonald in Genco et al,1991: 119), and will request the type of material with which they are most familiar (Brett, 1982: 1). However, Jacobs and Tunnell (1996: 12) note that adults will judge literary merit on criteria that has little relevance in the lives of children. Absence of swearing, the messages contained and non-threatening content are keenly sought by award makers, as reflected in the adult community at large (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 1999).

Lockie Leonard (Winton, 1990) explores the relocation of a 12 year old and his family from the city to the country with the transfer of his policeman father. In examining Lockie's first year at high school, the book considers the adjustments in the transition from primary to high school, the onset of puberty and the development of relationships.

By the use of humour, sensitive issues are examined in a non-threatening way. The methods employed with dealing with 'soiled' sheets and pyjamas (p 21, 57), the first kiss (p 60) and going to church with his family (p 88) are those to which any boy of this age can relate.

The plot is simple, but is well developed. Moving into a new house and starting at a new school, characters are introduced and developed. Insight into family life is provided, with Lockie's bed wetting younger brother Phillip interacting in a very realistic way with the remainder of the family.

Set in a stereotypical Australian locale, Lockie is portrayed as a 'grommet' (young surfer). Awarded an American Library Association award, the central themes of the story transcend international boundaries.

Kobrin (1988: 42-43) develops a set of criteria which incorporate aesthetic values in addition to accredited literary moors. In addition to seeking authority, accuracy and general design whilst avoiding stereotypes, Korbin is particularly concerned with the 'attractiveness' of a book. Mongrel Doggerel (Honey, 1998) is a collection of verse, the themes of which are drawn from a child's everyday experiences and common fantasy play. From the seemingly trivial waking up routine of "Morning" (p 26) and accompanying a mother shopping in "Don't Touch" (p 42), word play is featured in "Anagram anatomy" (p 47). The surrealistic conversation between a knife and fork in "Cutter and Spike" (p 33) is complemented by the use of a graphical typesetting format utilised in "Black hole" (p 16). The wide variation in theme, format and humour is supplemented by illustrations appropriate to the text. Having a low level language requirement, the book would appeal to readers of all ages and abilities. In addition, it is "attractive" within Korbin's (Ibid) meaning.

However, it is interesting to note that the conferring of an award does not necessarily indicate a book will achieve popular acclaim (Lehman, 1987: 1). An informal observation of the reactions of a 3 year old and a 5 year old to The Two Bullies (Morimoto, 1997) was undertaken in a home setting. Although the book was awarded the Children's Picture Book of the Year - 1998, the children were clearly frightened by the illustrations. Additionally, the concepts were beyond their grasp and the vocabulary was well beyond their level, despite both children having been formally identified as 'age advanced'. Clearly, the award judges were using different criteria to that employed by children in nominating 'quality' literature.

Similarly, the Children's Book Council of Australia shortlisted Idiot Pride (Zurbo, 1997) for an award. The main protagonists are "a mishmash of nobodies and losers" (p 22), who proclaim that "We're doing nothing, going nowhere" (p 64). The contemporary idiom is employed for the characters' dialogue, relying heavily on expletives for expression, and subculture for content. Although portraying life in contemporary industrialised urban Australia, the book has little to commend it. Providing no appropriate role models, nor higher ideals to which to aspire, it is typical of the genre of "Dirty Realism" (McClenaghan, 1997" 64).

Whilst the presentation of an award, or consideration for the same, give some guidance as to what may be critically identified as 'quality', it by no means guarantees the book's acceptance by the library users, nor the appropriateness for inclusion in the library collection. "Good books" are often judged on the prizes that they win (Ozlit, 1998), but it is to be noted that not all good books win prizes.

Role of School Libraries

School libraries in Australia were established with the primary goal of 'resourcing the curriculum' (Clyde, 1982: 11) , and in this regard the type of literature included in the collection must conform to the curriculum requirements. Further, if a classroom teacher requests any particular type of material, this request must be considered on the grounds of curriculum support rather than the personal preferences of the teacher librarian.

The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) in association with the Australian School Librarians' Association (ASLA) released a joint statement in 1994 which states that the purpose of the library collection is to " the educational, recreational and cultural needs..." of the users of a school library. Walsh (1997:6) notes that libraries need to be responsive to the local community. Further, Astill (1992: 19) comments that individual tastes should be respected in regard to the selection of reading material.

Advantages of Popular Fiction

a) Educational

As Pennac (1994: 24) noted, reading material that is not popular will not be read. Students will identify strategies for avoiding material that they do not perceive as relevant, or of a standard beyond their capabilities, and curriculum outcomes will
not be achieved. Further, an enjoyment of reading (Grieve, 1993: 22) will not develop.

Popular fiction may be included in the library collection purely on the grounds of its curriculum applications (Lining, 1998:71). Aliterate and preliterate students may not be able to access material for voluntary reading that may assist in their language acquisition skills without the inclusion of popular fiction in the school's library collection. Ross (1996:167) notes that books that are difficult to read will not result in a pleasurable experience, and thus language development may be further delayed.

Reluctant readers (Jones, 1994: 1) will be encouraged to use the library, and thus gain exposure to quality literature. The fact that most readers of 'teen romance' are also readers of other books is noted by Krashen (1993: 62), although it is the romance series books that they initially seek.

Free, voluntary reading is enhanced when the teacher librarian provides access to books of varying quality and format (Ross, 1996: 170), and allows the library users to choose their own reading material. In support of the creation of 'avid readers', Leonhardt (1996; 1) notes that the teacher librarian is the most singularly important member of the school community in providing children with material with which they will select of their own volition in the development of their reading skills.

Many readers of popular fiction continue their reading development at a higher rate than those who do not read this type of literature (Leonardt, 1996: 1). Further, Traw (1993: 1) notes that subliterature readers were the most prolific readers in a study he conducted,and comments that subliterature has the potential to act as a "bridge" to higher quality reading.

Hearne, (in Genco et al 1998: 119) quotes research that supports the proposition that children will chose a mix of both popular and acknowledged literature if both are available. Krashen (1993:62) refers to research that supports the assertion that the greater the exposure to books , the greater the amount of reading that will result.

b) Social

The inclusion of popular literature in the school's library collection will encourage reluctant readers to use the library (Genco, 1991: 107), is in children's preferred format (Krashen, 1993: 46), and provides an escapism (Astill, 1992:18) that allows children to experience danger (McClenaghan,1997: 65). romance, and other experiences vicariously. Further, this literature fulfils the childhood needs of social bonding through sharing similar experiences (Saltman, 1997: 64).

Coppell (1998: 10) notes that children's choices of reading material is limited to what is available. Whilst popular fiction is of relatively low cost, and easily accessed via retail outlets such as supermarkets, many lower socioeconomic groups will primarily access literature of all formats and standards through the school library. In the event that the library decides not to include popular literature in the collection, then economically disadvantaged students will not have access to the reading material of choice.

Disadvantages of Popular Fiction

a) Educational

Although popular literature will not adversely affect language development (Krashen ,1993: 50), this type of reading alone is insufficient to achieve higher level outcomes in literacy. If library users are given a choice of reading material, they may well continue to select 'popular' in preference to 'quality'.

Series books are a valuable aid to promoting language skills amongst reluctant readers (Ross, 1996: 165). However, some series books such as Under the Magician's Spell (Stine, 1996), cannot be considered as an "easy read". Exhibiting simple paragraphs and non-challenging language, little effort is required to decode the text. However, with "more than twenty scary endings" (on front cover), the work confronts the reader at the bottom of almost every page with at least two 0ptions to continue the story. Multiple plot divergences require the reader to expend considerable exertion in decision-making, creating a 'split attention' focus. The requirement to constantly flick between pages in a highly non sequential manner rapidly leads to a chaotic state.

Saltman (1997:24) expresses doubt as to whether or not popular fiction will engender "thoughtful readers" or will contribute to the creation of critical thinkers. The reliance on formulas and poor witting style (Foster, 1995: 188) do not extend readers, nor rarely contributes to their personal development.

b) Social

Negative role models, gender stereotyping and inappropriate language used out of context are frequently presented in popular literature. Further, one of the attractions of this genre is the presentation of antisocial behaviour that does not result in any punitive action. These characteristics render this type of material generally unsuitable for a school library.


The advantages of including popular fiction in the school library collection far outweigh the disadvantages. Whilst popular fiction has little literary merit, it does fulfil educational and sociological functions.

Further, in order to be responsive to the library users recreational needs, it is valid to include this type of reading material in the school library collection. However, due to the many shortcomings of popular literature, it is imperative that an appropriate balance be maintained between popular fiction and works of quality literature. This will result in a range of material to serve a variety of needs.

Thus, it is to be disputed that popular fiction " belongs in the street, not in the school".


Group A: Series Fiction

Main Author: Betancourt, Jeanne.
Title: The missing pony pal / Jeanne Betancourt ; illustrated by Paul
Subject(s): Horse riding--Fiction.
Publisher: New York : Scholastic, 1997.
Description: 84 p. : ill.
Series: Pony pals ; 16
A little apple paperback
ISBN : 0590374591

Main Author: Bodsworth, Nan.
Title: Peg Leg Meg / written and illustrated by Nan Bodsworth .
Subject(s): Pirates--Fiction.
Adventure stories.
Publisher: Ringwood, Vic. : Penguin, 1999.
Description: 90 p. : ill.
Series: Aussie bites
Puffin books
ISBN : 0141303441

Main Author: Keene, Carolyn.
Title: Love on-line / Carolyn Keene.
Subject(s): University and college students--Fiction.
Love stories.
Internet (computer network)--Fiction.
Publisher: New York : Pocket, 1997.
Description: 186 p.
Series: Nancy Drew on campus ; 19
An Archway paperback.
ISBN : 0671002112

Main Author: Stine, R.L.
Title: A night in terror tower / R.L. Stine.
Subject(s): Brothers and sisters--Fiction.
Time travel--Fiction.
Horror stories.
Publisher: New York : Scholastic, 1995.
Description: 129 p.
Series: Goosebumps
An Apple paperback.
ISBN : 059048351X

Main Author: Stine, R.L.
Title: Under the magician's spell / R.L. Stine.
Subject(s): Magic--Fiction.
Publisher: New York : Scholastic, 1996.
Description: 135 p.
Series: Give yourself goosebumps ; 7
An apple paperback
Notes: On cover: Reader beware - you choose the scare.
ISBN : 0590673211

Main Author: Pascal, Francine.
Title: The truth about Ryan/ created by Francine Pascal.
Subject(s): Adolescents--Fiction.
Publisher: New York : Bantam, 1997.
Description: 231 p.
Series: Sweet Valley University.
ISBN : 0553570552

Group B: Notable and Award Winning

Main Author: Metzenthen, David.
Title: Gilbert's ghost train / David Metzenthen.
Subject(s): Ghosts--Fiction.
Brothers and sisters--Fiction.
Publisher: Gosford, N.S.W. : Scholastic, 1997.
Description: 170 p.
ISBN : 1863888527

Main Author: Morimoto, Junko.
Title: The two bullies / Junko Morimoto ; translated from an original
Japanese story by Isao Morimoto.
Subject(s): Bullying--Fiction.
Japanese literature.
Publisher: Milsons Point, N.S.W. : Random Australia, 1997.
Description: [30] p. : col. ill.
Series: A Mark Macleod book.
ISBN : 0091832934

Main Author: Winton, Tim.
Title: Lockie Leonard, human torpedo / by Tim Winton.
Subject(s): Family relations--Fiction.
Love stories.
Publisher: Ringwood, Vic. : McPhee Gribble, 1990.
Description: 132 p.
ISBN : 0869141848

Main Author: Zurbo, Matt.
Title: Idiot pride / Matt Zurbo.
Publisher: Ringwood, Vic. : Penguin, 1997.
Description: 124 p.
ISBN : 0140383344

Section C: Free Choice
Main Author: Gleeson, Libby.
Title: Hannah plus one / Libby Gleeson ; illustrated by Ann James.
Subject(s): Family life--Fiction.
School stories.
Publisher: Ringwood, Vic. : Penguin, 1996.
Description: 73 p. : ill.
Series: Puffin books.
ISBN : 0140380906

Main Author: Gleitzman, Morris.
Title: Bumface / Morris Gleitzman.
Subject(s): Family life--Fiction.
Publisher: Ringwood, Vic. : Penguin, 1998.
Description: 181 p.
Series: Puffin books.
ISBN : 0140387978

Main Author: Honey, Elizabeth.
Title: Mongrel doggerel / Elizabeth Honey.
Subject(s): Australian poetry.
Publisher: St Leonards, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin, 1998.
Description: 78 p. : ill.
Series: A little ark book.
ISBN : 1864486848

Main Author: Jinks, Catherine.
Title: Eye to eye / Catherine Jinks.
Subject(s): Life on other planets--Fiction.
Publisher: Ringwood, Vic. : Penguin, 1997.
Description: Draft ed.
150 p.
Series: Puffin books.
ISBN : 014038444


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Updated April 22, 2001. Reformatted and moved to this site December 28, 2006.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Amanda Credaro © 2006.