How I Became Trapped (Happily) in My Longest Book Series
These days we often think of a book series as being conceived with the express purpose of eventually growing into many volumes. Creating series this way is nothing new. It goes back to the late 19th century when Edward Stratemeyer and his Stratemeyer Syndicate created The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and other famous collections. These days book series are often carefully orchestrated “events” with as much time put into planning and publicity as into the writing of the books themselves.
But occasionally a series still comes along that has a more serendipitous beginning, one which starts with an author writing a single one-off novel without thought of it multiplying. And when it does, he or she is as surprised as anyone else.
This was the case with my Help! I’m Trapped In …. series, which gradually grew to 17 volumes and has thus far sold (this is my best guess) perhaps 5 million copies worldwide. I never expected, or even imagined, that anything like that could happen when I wrote the first volume, Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body.
This was back in the early 1990s when I would occasionally write one-offs for the Scholastic Book Clubs. My Scholastic editor would call and say she needed a book for Halloween, or Valentine’s Day or, in the case of Teacher’s Body, the fall return-to-school season. In that first Help! book I wrote about Jake Sherman, who misbehaves so much in class that it threatens to drive his teacher crazy. Then by accident, Jake and his teacher switch bodies, thus giving the teacher – in Jake’s body -- the opportunity to exact his revenge, and Jake – now in the teacher’s body -- the aggravating experience of learning his lesson.
With its cover featured on the front page of the Scholastic Book Club order form, Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body had respectable sales, but nothing worth getting excited about. So I wasn’t surprised when, the next time my editor called, it was to suggest an entirely different idea, this time a book embracing the concept of the movie Ground Hog Day, only in a middle-school setting.
I got to work on that story, which I decided would be about a boy who has to do the first day of school over and over until he gets it “right.” About halfway through the manuscript, while searching for a possible title, it occurred to me that the book could very easily be called, Help! I’m Trapped in the First Day of School. All I’d have to do was change the main character’s name to Jake Sherman, give him an older sister named Jessica, and his two sidekicks from Teacher’s Body, Josh and Andy.
I proposed the idea to my editor, who saw no reason why I shouldn’t do it, although there was still no mention of a series. As far as we were both concerned, it would just be another book title that began with Help! I’m trapped in…
When Help! I’m Trapped in the First Day of School came out a few months later, it just did well enough for my editor to wonder what, if anything, I could imagine Jake Sherman switching bodies with next. Back in those days I had a yellow lab named Mac who liked to spend the day snoozing under my desk while I wrote. So I suggested Help! I’m Trapped in My Dog’s Body. My editor said she liked the idea, but felt the title needed to be tied to a school theme like the first two books.
It just so happened that I’d recently taken Mac to an indoor obedience school, with disastrous results (imagine the worst thing your dog could do in the middle of class, then think, big dog, like a Labrador retriever). So I suggested Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School.
Thanks in no small part to a fabulous cover, that book alone sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the book clubs, and then a similar amount in the Scholastic Book Fairs. Suddenly, the word “series” began to be bandied about. The subsequent contracts were usually for two or three Help! titles at a time, among them Gym Teacher’s Body, Principal’s Body, and Lunch Lady’s. Only then, having run out of suitable school-related topics, was I allowed to extend the series with Sister’s Body, First Day of Camp, Professional Wrestler, Movie Star, etc.
After 17 books, it ended. By then the plots had become pretty complicated. In one book, Jake, Josh, Andy, and another character all switched bodies with each other and then had a hard time figuring out how to get their own bodies back. There were also books with incomplete switches, where someone’s head wound up on someone else’s body.
The one regret I have regarding the series has to do with how New-York centric some editors can be. While writing the Help! books I was often on the road speaking at schools, and at one point, almost everywhere I went outside of the New York metro area, kids were wearing NASCAR tee shirts. But back in New York, the sport had not caught on and only a few of the biggest races were televised annually. When I suggested Help! I’m Trapped in a NASCAR Driver’s Body, the editors in charge turned it down. I wish I’d fought harder for that title. It would’ve sold a ton.
Todd Strasser is the author of more than 140 novels for teens and pre-teens. His most recent novel, FALLOUT, was called "exciting, harrowing ... Superb entertainment ... It thrums along with finely wrought atmosphere and gripping suspense," by the New York Times. School Library Journal called it "A Must-Read Middle School Book."