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.
You can add you name to Virginia’s mailing list at www.virginiamccullough.com and visit her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/virginia.mccullough.7 and on Twitter: @VEMccullough
I enjoyed reading about the origin of the Nancy Drew series very much. I knew the books were ghost-written but didn't know about the first writer, Mildred. I think her story would make a great movie! And as a former teacher-librarian, I know there's a place in a school library for just about any book. The goal is to produce life-long readers, right? Thanks for this very informative post, Virginia.ReplyDelete
I think Mildred and those who followed served a great purpose. I think my mother would agree today, now that libraries have loosened their attitudes. Glad you enjoyed the blog.Delete
I never read a Nancy Drew, but I have some first editions that I got at a used book store that went out of business. The woman who owned it gave me the books.ReplyDelete
Thanks. I love the old editions, especially the kind of paper we don't see much anymore.Delete
I adored Nancy Drew. Truthfully, I can't remember many of the details, but I spend many hours solving cases along with Nancy and her friends, George and--can't remember the other name. I'll have to look it up.ReplyDelete
These days I think more about the ghostwriters, having been a ghostwriter myself so many years. But I do think the concept for young girls in the '30s was valuable too.Delete
I read all the Nancy Drew's growing up and am reading them again at age 65 and loving them. The world today's makes retreating to Nancy's simpler if sometimes harrowing age a welcome respite. By the way, just finished your A Bridge Home and loved it!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much--I appreciate the kind words. I haven't done a jigsaw puzzle in a couple of decades or more, but there's something about 1000 pieces of those charming book covers that makes me want to dive in!ReplyDelete
I have a few treasured copies from the 1930s I picked up at yard sales and flea markets when I was a young girl.
Thanks--good for you. When it comes to books we use the word "treasured" often, don't we?Delete
It's unreal how many friends (and one sister!) I have named Nancy. I loved this post. I never cared--still don't--about what's "pulp" and what's not. I just love to read, and Nancy Drew gave me a lot more pleasure than Will Shakespeare. :-)ReplyDelete
That was my stance with my mom. If she didn't come around, I know she understood my point of view on it. I was close to my parents, both voracious readers and among the items I saved were their precious library cards and reading glasses.Delete
I keep intending to re-read the Nancy Drew books, but haven't found time. You're so right that the books are a gateway to reading. The same with the Walter Farley horse stories, etc. In college I worked as an au pair, and they couldn't get their daughter to read anything. I introduced her to Nancy and the Black Stallion and other books, and soon she couldn't get enough.ReplyDelete
Love those Black Stallion books. I so agree that they were gateway books.Delete