Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

Hi. Barb here.

This summer I read Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak about the women who wrote the Nancy Drew books, as well as the man whose original idea she was. Sort of double and a half biography.

What is it about Nancy Drew? For so many girls (including me) she was the introduction to chapter books and to mysteries. In an article on Nancy’s enduring influence, The New York Times reported that Sonia Sotomayor said Nancy Drew represented boldness and intelligence. Fans include Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gayle King, Diane Sawyer, Nancy Pelosi and Nancy Grace.

Nancy Drew is independent and self-confident. There are mysteries to be solved and she gets down to it. She has a boyfriend, but unlike so many heroines of her era, Nancy’s objective isn’t to get the ring. I think she offers the feistiness of Jo March without all the suffering. She has the perfect young-girl-fantasy combination of plenty of money, an indulgent father and no mother to nag her about practicing the piano or trimming her bangs.

Edward Stratemeyer, 1862-1930

She was the brain child of Edward Stratemeyer, the already highly successful book series creator of the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys, among many others. He ran a book syndicate where he came up with the ideas, sold them to publishers and then hired writers to implement his vision, often from detailed outlines. Stratemeyer’s early efforts were all books for boys. He and a lot of the publishing industry believed that that while girls would happily read books about boys, boys would never read books about girls. (I think I just heard that one yesterday.) But by the time Nancy Drew arrived on April 28,1930 he had plenty of experience with girls’ books. He was a master marketeer, finding ways for the kids who got his catalogs in the mail to give him more and more names. His books were viewed with a jaundiced eye by many and were actually removed from the public library in Newark, New Jersey, his home town, which only caused more books to be sold. Kids loved the books and traded them over back fences and during school recess. It was said by one critic they were “like an insidious narcotic with the habit-forming properties of opium.”

Margaret Augustine Wirt Benson, 1905-2002

The first author Stratemeyer chose to write Nancy was a feisty, independent woman herself. Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, born in 1905, was a high dive champion and the first female to get a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. When she was 59 years old she got her pilot’s license and she was a working journalist all her life, though never, ever for the women’s pages which she dismissed as “jams and jellies.” She wrote 23 of the first 25 books under contracts that paid her between $80 and $125 per book.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, 1892-1982

With a few unsuccessful writers in between, the next real author of the Nancy books was Edward’s daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. A decade older than Mildred, Harriet grew up wealthier and in a more socially constricted environment. She wanted to work for her father when she graduated from Wellesley, and though he gave her some work to do at home, he wouldn’t hear of her coming into his offices. When Edward died in 1930, his plan had been for the business to be sold to provide for his wife and daughters, but in that Depression era, there were no buyers to be found. Harriet, despite having four young children at home, took over the syndicate. She ran it for forty years and is credited with keeping it afloat during the Depression and then revitalizing it in the 50s and 60s. In the 1950s, she also began authoring Nancy Drew.

The full book tells a great story about writing and ego and the publishing industry, full of remarkable, flawed, very human people. The Nancy Drew books have been updated, rewritten and repackaged many times over the years. I inherited a few of my mother’s 1930s editions, and though the casual racism and ethnic stereotyping are stunning, the stories are also richer and more complex, as is the heroine.

In any case, I’ll be grateful forever to Nancy Drew, because with her I developed the habit of reading, which is one of the greatest joys of my life.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries and the Jane Darrowfield Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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19 Responses to Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    As a child I loved Nancy Drew . . . and was devastated to learn that there wasn’t a “real” Carolyn Keene. [It didn’t stop me from reading the books, though . . . they mysteries were simply too enticing.] I’d read other books from the Stratemeyer book syndicate, most notably both the Bobbsey Twins [a favorite since I was a twin myself] and the Hardy Boys.

    As an adult, I find the “grist mill” sort of process of creating these books a bit of a “cheat,” but I admire the women who were able to step up and write the books to the formula outlined for them. To be creative and to make your own mark while adhering to someone else’s vision is a particular talent indeed.

    Despite their success, it would be easy to dismiss the Stratemeyer books for their lack of originality and their stereotyping, especially in light of all the wonderful books written for young readers. However, to do so would be to overlook their unique contribution which lies in their ability to draw the young reader in, to provide a platform in which young readers developed a love of reading, found joy in having a book in their hands . . . and kept coming back for more.

    • Elizabeth F says:

      I had never known that the books were not written by Carolyn Keene. I don’t think I found that out until just 5-6 years ago when I saw an article on Harold Stratemeyer. What an interesting industry of writing he developed.

    • Barb Ross says:

      ” To be creative and to make your own mark while adhering to someone else’s vision is a particular talent indeed.”

      Yes, you certainly come away admiring the grit of these women–some of which is in Nancy. Mildred Wirt wrote many of the books by her dying husband’s bedside and more beside a sleeping baby.

      She and the syndicate definitely fought about who Nancy was. There’s no question that both women had strong views on her character.

  2. John Clark says:

    Great post. We bought this book for the library when it came out. Now I’m going to have to read it. I’m a firm believer in getting kids to read and feel content is less important than the act itself. Graphic novels are for many kids these days what the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were for my generation. On a side note, I wonder how many know that the vast majority of the V.C. Andrews books have been written by a man.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Yes, for my son (now in his early thirties), it was definitely comic books and graphic novels that lead to his reading habit. Now he’s a broad reader of fiction and non-fiction–and still buys the occasional comic book.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Although my granddaughters enjoyed the Nancy Drew movie, they haven’t been as entranced by the Nancy Drew books. Recent editions have given Nancy a more modern car, cleaned up racist and sexist terms, and taken out references today’s young readers today might not “get.” But compared with The Hunger Games – Nancy’s adventures seem pretty tame. “Her” books are still in print, though, and there are even “early reader” versions for the youngest set. Not many writers — real or syndicated — are still being talked about and read so many years after they were first published.

    • Elizabeth F says:

      My children never got interested in any of the serial books when they were younger, except maybe THE BOXCAR CHILDREN. They always wanted those from the Scholastic book sales at school. We have the first 45 in the series.

      THE BOXCAR books are always very popular at my church library. I must now have almost 85 of them going from 1 up to somewhere around 120. They are so formulaic but they hold the young readers interest. Children will check out 5 or more at a time. Some read in order , some read what looks interesting. The books have kept up with the times and cover current topics like soccer and computers. I find them mostly at Goodwill and other used book stores or Amazon used.

    • Barb Ross says:

      My daughter never read them, either. They’re not the kind of kid’s books like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games that adults read and love. And the modern ones are even more watered down than the originals.

      But for me, they’re the books that got me reading.

      • Elizabeth F says:

        So true. When my daughters were same age I was reading Nancy Drew they had Harry Potter. GOBLET OF FIRE came out when they were 2nd grade and 4th grade. We bought the book the day before leaving on AMTRAK to cross the country and they read all the way. Saw a number of other GOF as we walked the aisles for 2 days.

  4. Janet McCord says:

    I’ve always regretted that I never read any Nancy Drew books. My mother thought they were “common” like comic books and I was encouraged to read books like “Treasure Island”, “:Heidi” and “Hans Brinker”. I always felt I might have missed out on something in my life and now I’m not so sure…

    • Elizabeth F says:

      I fortunately was allowed to read whatever I wanted. I did love that Great Illustrated Classic series that had TREASURE ISLAND, HANS BRINKER AND THE SILVER SKATES, ROBINSON CRUSOE, among many others.
      However my library would not carry the Nancy Drew books. I one day got up the courage to ask the very intimidating librarians where were the Nancy Drew books and I was given such a look. I don’t think I ever spoke to them again. This would have been about 1966 or 1967. So I just went and bought one every week with my allowance …I think they were 75 cents or 1.00. Unfortunately I don’t have them anymore. They must have got cleared out while I was in college or such.

      • Barb Ross says:

        Edward Stratemeyer loved it that many children reacted the way you did Elizabeth. When turned away at the library, they simply bought the books. Stratemeyer insisted the price be kept low.

  5. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Hiya Barb and all,

    Nancy Drew and her pals (didn’t she call them chums?) were a formative influence for me. I would have to say she inspires me to this day, as I stick to my writing just as she stuck to her sleuthing.

    Best line in your post: think she offers the feistiness of Jo March without all the suffering. Brilliant!

    Brenda

  6. Great post Barb! I will have to read this–amazingly low advances though–even though we complain!

    • Barb Ross says:

      They weren’t advances Lucy. That was IT. They were all straight work-for-hire, though Stratemeyer did have a tradition of giving hefty Christmas bonuses if the syndicate had a good year.

  7. lil Gluckstern says:

    When I was young in the 50’s, we all collected Nancy Drew, and read the Bobbsey Twins as well. My introduction to the Classics was the Classics Illustrated, which were fancy comics. Oh how I begged for the 25 cents they cost 🙂 I read everything I could get my hands on.

  8. My very favorite memory of my first year of teaching at a private school in Connecticut was Parents Weekend, when one of my students brought her grandmother to meet me. The woman held out her hand and said, “Hello, I am Carolyn Keene.”
    It was Harriet Stratemyer Adams.

  9. thelma straw says:

    I thought this post was great! I too devoured the Nancy Drew books – and wonder why some bright person today does not employ this strategy – I’m sure a lot of writers would love to make good money with this kind of writing – as did many men and women in a lot of those adventure paperbacks several years ago – but I feel sorry for the soul who was paid only $100… I think if we could draw back the veil there are more people writing under fake names than this world dreams of!! Thelma in Manhattan

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