Nancy Drew never gets old
My daughter and I closed down the library one recent Friday night.
We know how to party.
Actually, a certain slim, attractive amateur sleuth, known to zip around River Heights in her blue roadster, is to blame.
We had run into my good friend Jodi Heckel, whose daughter couldn’t wait to share her latest literary love: Nancy Drew.
Our girls spent more than an hour examining every yellow volume on the classics shelf, along with myriad Nancy Drew spinoffs. We had to drag them out at closing time.
It’s in her genes. I have my own set of Nancy Drews gathering dust on a shelf in my mom’s basement. I saved lots of books from my childhood — shocking, I know, given my propensity for
hoarding sentimentality — but this series was special.
Nancy’s adventures and natural curiosity kicked off my lifelong interest in mystery/suspense novels — and probably figured into my career choice. Reporters are not so different from detectives (except for that danger part).
I spent hours hunting for mysteries around the neighborhood, combing through every old clock, hollow oak and secret attic for unspecified clues. I’m pretty sure I never found anything more mysterious than broken glass, dust bunnies or faded toys we’d left out in the rain.
Apparently, I was not alone. Every time I mention my daughter’s new interest to a friend, they get that dreamy look and sigh, “Oh, Nancy Drew ...”
Then I learned there’s yet another spinoff set to debut today, “Nancy Drew Diaries.”
What’s the pull of a somewhat stilted series that dates back 80 years? Is it the roadster (which morphed into a convertible in later editions)? Her rich lawyer father? Her spunky sense of adventure or cool resourcefulness?
It’s all that and more, says Nancy Drew expert Jennifer Fisher, who has two websites, a fan club and even a Twitter account (@NancyDrewFans) devoted to the cause.
“We love mysteries. We’re naturally curious,” says Fisher, 39. “Of course, Nancy was such an independent and bold character who was out there making her way in the world — not having to deal with school or parents who wouldn’t let her go investigate spooky places. She got to do lots of amazing things that kids reading her adventures couldn’t do.”
The heroine is not unlike Mildred Wirt Benson, the first ghostwriter for the series under the pseudonym “Carolyn Keene.” Born in 1905, Benson was the first woman to earn a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and later enjoyed a long career as a newspaper reporter in Toledo.
“Being independent-minded and adventurous herself, Benson gave Nancy Drew these qualities and then some,” Fisher says.
Nancy Drew debuted just a decade after women earned the legal right to vote, and girls were ready for “a new type of heroine” who wasn’t as domesticated or timid as most literary figures of the day, according to Fisher, who is working on two books about the history of the series and the people behind it.
Doctors, lawyers, politicians, journalists, even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have credited Nancy’s influence.
“I think she inspired lots of kids to do more in their lives,” Fisher says. “Even though she’s chasing down dark alleys, she has been a good role model.”
News-Gazette reporter Mary Schenk was hooked by her first Nancy Drew book and read the entire series in one summer — which may be why she loves covering crime now.
“I was instantly sympathetic to Nancy for being motherless but in awe of her wonderful relationship with her successful father and her brilliance at solving crimes. She was also so kind to everyone, pretty, popular and witty. Wouldn’t we all like to be just like that?”
In the opening paragraphs of the first book, we learn Nancy is “an attractive girl” of 18, with a wealthy lawyer father who has just given her a convertible for her birthday. Score!
“I also liked how grown-up and competent she was, like an adult rather than a teenager,” Heckel says. “Are there really 18-year-olds like that?”
Our daughters say they like mysteries and the sense of adventure in the books. And Nancy is pretty.
“Mystery books are also great for honing critical thinking skills,” Hungerford says. “Solving a puzzle empowers a child to make sense of the world around them.”
Series books are popular with developing readers, though they’re sometimes derisively referred to as “formula fiction,” says fellow children’s librarian Mike Rogalla. But they can be valuable for elementary-age readers, he says.
The familiar plot structure of each book in a series allows children to master the text. Even words that adults might view as old-fashioned (think “lad” and “chums”) are taken in stride, as kids are used to learning every day, he says.
“Even parents and caregivers who encourage children with a diet of award winners can afford to serve up a few snacks,” Rogalla says.
Nancy has undergone lots of changes over the years, from the plucky flapper of the 1930s to a June Cleaver-esque look in the ’50s to the modern teen heroine of late.
My guess is our newest version will be driving a hybrid, battling computer hackers and tweeting about her latest triumph. Nancy is nothing if not adaptable. And always plucky.
For more ideas on children's books with staying power, click here for a related blog post on the Champaign Public Library's "110 Books for Every Child." Leave a comment about your favorite children's book for a chance to win a free book!
Did you know?
* The classic Nancy Drew series included 56 books published in hardcover from 1930 to ’79. The first 34 were revised starting in 1959 to eliminate dated references and racial stereotypes.
* The original versions have 25 chapters; revised versions have 20.
* Eight ghostwriters made up author “Carolyn Keene.” The most prolific were the first, Mildred Wirt Benson, and Harriet Stratemeyer, daughter of series creator Edward Stratemeyer.
* Nancy’s blonde hair morphed into “titian,” or brownish-orange, as a result of a printing snafu in Book 35. The artist painted her hair as strawberry-blonde to distinguish it from Nancy’s friend Helen Corning, a blonde, but it came out darker. (See how Nancy changed over the years here.)
* The books spawned several spinoff series, including the “Clue Crew” and “Nancy Drew Notebooks” for younger readers, “Nancy Drew Girl Detective” as a follow to the original series, and graphic novels.
* The first two books of the new “Nancy Drew Diaries” were to be released today.
Source: Author Jennifer Fisher, www.nancydrewsleuth.com, www.ndsleuths.com
Avid reader Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/jawurth.