She’s been an American institution since her birth in 1930, our Nancy Drew. I went to school with many girls named Nancy, and now I wonder how many were given that name because of their mother’s love of the Nancy Drew mysteries. In a current WIP, I named the protagonist Drew, because her mother was a big Nancy fan.
It seems girls and women plug into Nancy Drew in our own ways. As a city kid who took public transportation everywhere not walking distance (defined as more than two or three miles away!), I was most impressed by Nancy’s roadster. Wow, she drove her own car. Plus, she had a boyfriend and a life of her own. How cool was that?
Overall, though, Nancy Drew likely touched the spirit of many young girls because, as one author put it, she had agency. At a time when women had barely begun to vote and still had limited opportunities to be autonomous in the world, Nancy Drew was an exception. She was her own person, and some adults didn’t want girls getting any such notions—ooh, and she even contradicts adults, to boot. These adults actively disapproved and wanted parents to discourage girls from reading the books. A fruitless pursuit, as it turned out. (Lucky us.) Our Nancy won that battle from book 1, The Secret of The Old Clock.
As the decades went on, some children’s literature specialists (my mother included, sadly) didn’t think libraries should stock Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys series (and other series) because they were basically pulp fiction for kids. Mom and I had a standing disagreement about that. My mom was a feminist so it had nothing to do with that; it was more about pulp v. literature. Then, when I was librarian for a short time in a little town on the Maine coast, I saw firsthand the way these series were “gateway” books. They opened the door to a love of reading and brought kids into the wider wonders of the library. One of my earliest published articles was my argument for encouraging young, reluctant (and those not so reluctant) readers to give these books a try.
I’ve always admired Carolyn Keene, or more accurately Mildred Wirt Benson, a woman born in 1905 and who lived to be 96 years old. Carolyn Keene was the pseudonym for other ghostwriters, but Mildred Benson was the first. She wrote 56 Nancy Drew mysteries, plus The Dana Girls books, and many, many more series. The Stratemeyer Syndicate published several popular sleuth series, all of which were written on a work-for-hire basis. The syndicate held the copyright and later revised their successful series and released new editions of the books. This arrangement was terrible for the authors, but we didn’t know that when Nancy got her hooks into us.
Most people will always remember the name, Carolyn Keene, but I think about Mildred (Millie) Wirt Benson—she was our colleague, romance authors. It gives me a pleasant little shiver to know that. I just discovered a biography written for young people (ages 10 +) about Millie Benson, The Secret Case of The Nancy Drew Ghostwriter And Journalist, by Julie Rubini.
I guess we can say the Nancy-Millie (and others) legend will endure since you can now buy Nancy Drew shirts and totes and other products celebrating Nancy among other “mighty girls.” Or look at the 1000-piece Nancy Drew Puzzle made up of her book covers.
So, Happy 90th to Nancy Drew—I wonder how she’ll fare in another 90.
With the August 2020 release of A Bridge Home, Virginia’s Back to Bluestone River series is complete. Meanwhile, books 1 & 2, A Family for Jason and The Christmas Kiss are available online and the Harlequin.com website. Her other Harlequin Heartwarming books include her first series: Girl In The Spotlight, Something To Treasure, and Love, Unexpected.
A ghostwriter, editor, and writing coach, Virginia also writes award-winning women’s fiction, including The Jacks Of Her Heart, The Chapels On The Hill, Amber Light, Island Healing, and Greta’s Grace. All Virginia’s stories explore themes of hope, healing, and plenty of second chances.