Nancy Drew


Does anybody currently in the intended age range read these? I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a number of currently avid readers who cut their literary teeth on the series, but I haven’t got a sense of how popular Nancy Drew (and the Hardy Boys) are among the tween set today.

For those who haven’t read the series: the basic upshot of the series is that Nancy Drew, teenaged girl sleuth, and her girl chums investigate crimes–at first largely in and around her (fictional) home town of River Heights, but later branching out to other parts of the United States and occasionally over seas. Why is a series so old still worth reading?

They don’t always provide proper role models for the sensitive feminists among modern readers. Nancy combines girlish innocence with domestic talents in a blithe manner certain to trigger all the modern feminists, shows no intent of going on to college despite being very bright (aside from solving all those mysteries, she speaks several languages and whips up disguises at the drop of a cheongsam). They’re not terribly realistic. While Nancy does at least let her father know where she’s going, there’s no hint that three teenagers traveling alone might run into problems. They’re elitist. Money is never mentioned–despite having read a good many of the books, I have no idea how big her father’s house is–but there’s enough for casual trips through the United States, and the occasional last minute trip overseas. The Bungalow Mystery does rather set the tone for subsequent books as the girl whom Nancy is helping complains that her abductor is terribly cruel because he has no servants and expects her to do do housework. The fact that Nancy looks down on the flashy showy nouveau riche upstarts who appear in later books makes me think she was intended to be old money. They’re culturally insensitive by modern standards. The Mystery of the Fire Dragon garbles various Asian cultures, and to cap the investigation off, one of the (Caucasian) chums dressed up in Chinese clothing and is mistaken for the ethnically Chinese girl for whom they’re hunting.

The first book in the original Nancy Drew series1, The Secret of the Old Clock, was written in 1930 and the “author”2 chugged out some fifty-six books over the next fifty years. Not surprisingly, Nancy’s changed a great deal over the decades, even allowing for the fact that, starting in the late 1950s, Adams went back to rewrite the earlier books.

For those of us willing to walk down memory lane, what attracts you to the series? For me, there’s something sweetly nostalgic about the series, which I think I recognized even when I read them as a fairly non-judgmental child; I seem to remember thinking of them as the American equivalent of the Noel Streatfeild books, which were set in England in the late 1930s through the late 1950s: period pieces about a time and place that I might enjoy living in, but which had no correlation to the world in which I lived. It was just fun to read about a smart girl who could drive about where she pleased with her friends.

Hats off to the Stratemeyer Syndicate for coming up with so many series which were so popular for so long! Stratemeyer realized what others have concluded since: there’s a huge market out there for comparatively easy to read series for kids in the middle grades. Long running and more than slightly formulaic series are commonplace today, but there was a novel tint to the concept in 1899, when Stratemeyer began the Rover Boys. The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift followed, but (perhaps not surprisingly given they started later and ran longer), the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series are probably better recognized today. Originally, I think Stratemeyer was writing the books his company published, but quickly realized he couldn’t keep track of the different series. After that, the Stratemeyer Company paid authors a flat rate to write novels in various series based on an outline and synopsis provided by the company; the amount varied but was a fair pay at least if you ignore things like potential royalties, but then there’s something to be said for earning two months salary at a go. The founder, Stratemeyer, died in 1930 and his daughter, Harriet, took over.

If I were going to read them as an adult, I think I’d try to get the original versions of the books written prior to 1960; not only were the books written later significantly shorter and faster moving, but Harriet S. Adams went back and rewrote the earlier books. In fairness, she removed some pretty egregiously racist stuff, though not as bad as the original Bobbsey Twins, but she also simplified and changed the books. Some details will make little difference–Nancy’s 18 instead of 16, she drives a convertible instead of a roadster, her mother died when she was three–but readers who teethed on the originals claim later editions were dumbed down. Having read a couple of the later books recently, they’re hardly the stupidest things I’ve read for this blog, but I’m all for challenging kids.

Nancy Drew, Sleuth

1there’ve been several other series, but I think the last of them came to an end in 2004?
2I hope it comes as no surprise to adult readers today that there never was a Carolyn Keene

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