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Besides Nancy Drew: Vintage (Feminist) Notes on Vintage Girls’ Book Series

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If you have access to a good library, you might be able to find a copy of fiction writer’s early study of Nancy Drew and other series fiction, called The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide that she wrote early in her career, back in the 1970’s. Mason’s study is a review of a range of series fiction from the early and mid 20th century and a reflection on the purpose that they served.


Read about Bobbie Ann Mason’s fiction here:

Bobbie Ann Mason: An authentic voice from western Kentucky


You know series fiction is something that many teachers love to hate, and usually it gets ignored by reviewers of children’s literature, but they became and stayed popular for a long time.  Many sources agree that this popularity is in large part because the books show girls…and boys…doing stuff.   

This is true, anyway, if you believe Mason in The Girl Sleuth, and no reason not to, she spent a significant chunk of her childhood and adolescence immersed in these books, and she went on to become a highly regarded fiction writer. So these books must not be all bad.

Also, it’s important to remember that kids prior to the 1970’s(?) simply did not have that much access to books they could buy. Most children’s books were marketed to schools and libraries, so in a sense, these books were like comics: they were read and shared by the kids, without adult mediation. That alone is enough to make them attractive, no doubt!

With a few exceptions, many of these books gave teenage girls the chance for them to envisions a different life from the one of most of the women that they knew, and hopefully, it gave them the chance to see themselves as capable and independent.

When Mason was writing her book in the 1970’s, most of the series books were only available through used bookstores, but the nice thing about digital media is that now many books are available digitally for a very low price or free, and that included some of these series.

If you want to discover these books for the first time, share them with an older child or teenager, or take a walk down memory lane yourself, here’s your chance! No more need to haunt used bookstores!

The Children

The Bobbsey Twins

Mason was a big fan as a child, but as an adult, she seemed to find them a bit hard to take. She finds them hierarchial and highly oriented to traditional gender roles. Although their world is icredibly safe and secure, they did get to do some really cool things!

Be warned that the original ones are racist in their depiction of the family’s Black servants.

The Bobbsey Twins were produced by the same company that produced Nancy Drew, the Stratemeyer Syndicate. They used the pseudonym “Laura Lee Hope” for several popular series.

Mason was also, as a child, a big fan of the Honey Bunch series, but these are out of print and not available digitally.

An Oldie but a Goodie

Aunt Jane’s Nieces

Mason mentions Aunt Jane’s Nieces as one of the original girls’ series…a precursor to the detective series. These books were written by L. Frank Baum, who also wrote The Wizard of Oz. Edith Van Dyne is a pen name. In Baum’s original contract, he was expressly directed to write something that would successfully compete with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women books.

The last book in the series, Aunt Jane’s Nieces in the Red Cross, was originally written before the U.S. entered the first World War, and the characters treated soldiers on both sides. It was rewritten later, and according to Wikipedia, the second version was darker.

Read The Lois Level on Little Women here:

There’s a lot more to Louisa May Alcott than Greta Gerwig’s 2019 “Little Women”The Best of the Mysteries

Judy Bolton Mysteries

Mason is a big fan of the Judy Bolton mysteries. She writes extensively about how realistic Judy Bolton is, especially when compared to Nancy Drew. Because she is written by an individual author, the books are also better crafted.

The first books were written prior to Nancy Drew, but they were not published until after Nancy Drew became a success and proved the market.

The Vanishing Shadow is the first in the series. Some titles are available as an e-book and some are in print. The best deal is The Third Girl Detective Megapack, which includes two Judy Boltons plus seven other books.

The Trixie Belden Mysteries

Mason is a particularly big fan of the Trixie Belden series. The series starts out with Trixie Belden as a hard working girl from a lower income family who lives next door to a wealthy family, so the differences in the two lifestyles is contrasted. Mason particularly recommends books 1-3, which are by Julie Campbell. The remaining books in the series, which ran into the 1980’s, were by a different author.

As of this writing, the three book set below is slightly less expensive than the separate Kindle books. Books 1 & 2 are on Kindle FreeTime (the kids’ version of Kindle Unlimited, which has a one month trial and then is only $2.99 a month after, if the parent is a Prime member). If you belong to Amazon Prime, the best deal is to sign up for Kindle Freetime Unlimited temporarily to read these books.

If you are interested in learning more about Trixie Belden books, check out Trixie-Belden.com, but note that the site hasn’t been updated since 2011.


Detail from enthusiast Dean Burcham showing Trixie Belden, Ruth Fielding, and other vintage detective series books.


More Vintage Series that are free or inexpensive on Kindle.

These series are all from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which means that the listed authors are pseudonyms. The books were written by ghost writers according to strict formulas laid out by the syndicate.

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To learn about Bobbie Ann Mason’s fantastic fiction, read The Lois Level’s Bobbie Ann Mason: An authentic voice from western Kentucky.

To read the history of the Nancy Drew series, read The Lois Level’s Nancy Drew has been an American role model for 90 years…this is how it happened.

 


Part of the collection from vintage series book enthusiast Dean Burcham

The Career Women

Cherry Ames

Cherry Ames was meant as a better quality version of Helen Dore Bolyston’s Sue Barton series. According to Mason, the difference is that Sue Barton was interested in getting married, while Cherry Ames was not. Cherry Ames books were also intended to get girls interested in nursing during the second World War, so the first few books don’t have mysteries; they are about nursing. As the series continued, mysteries were introduced.

Some Cherry Ames books are by Julie Campbell, who also wrote the original Trixie Beldens.

The Cherry Ames books are available for a reasonable, but definitely not inexpensive, price on Amazon. The “boxed sets” are slightly cheaper.

Vicki Barr

The Vicki Barr mysteries are along the same vein, but Vicki Barr is what we would call a “flight attendant” now and would have been called a “stewardess” back in the day.


This photo produced by United Airlines shows their flight attendant uniforms in the 30’s and 40’s. Looks like they were having trouble figuring out the “identity” of this job…nurse, southern belle, or military?

Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive


This photo is of Mary Ford, who was a ferry pilot during World War 2. I found this on an amazing Flickr photo stream of vintage airline photography. Her life was made into a Lana Turner film called Lady Takes a Flyer.

Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

As of this writing, the first two titles are back in print in paperback.

Also, two books are available on Kindle for just $1.99 as of this writing. I don’t know why it’s just the two, but if you want them, get them before they disappear. Just a guess.

Helen Dore Bolyston: Sue Barton and Carol Parker

At The Lois Level, we like Sue Barton. I was given a few of the books when the school library where my mother worked was weeding their shelves, and I also got a few of the Carol Parker books, which are about a career in acting. I prefer the stories that are about jobs, rather than focusing on a mystery.

None of the books are available on Kindle, but they are in paperback.

Helen Dore Bolyston also wrote about her own nursing experiences in Sister.

And she cowrote a book about her car travels in Europe with Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House series. Rose Wilder Lane was an author in her own right and collaborated heavily with her mother on the Little House books.

Ironically, the one of the series authors that Mason shuns somewhat actually lived a life that was the aspiration of many of the girls who read these books, Mason included. Of course, Mason would not have had access to the resources we do today when she wrote The Girl Sleuth, so she may not have even known about them.

Mildred Wirt Benson (one of the people behind Carolyn Keene)

Mildred Wirt Benson served as one of the principal ghost writers for the initial Nancy Drew books. She was not solely responsible for the books: the plots of the books came from the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The Nancy Drews she wrote were revised and simplified in the 1950’s, but luckily, Mildred Wirt Benson wrote many more children’s books under her own name, so Nancy Drew fans, especially fans who might have read the originals, may enjoy her books.

Searching for Wirt Benson on Amazon is tricky, so be patient. She was married twice, so sometimes she is credited as Mildred Wirt and sometimes as Mildred Benson. She is also credited with some of the Nancy Drews, which are formally authored by Carolyn Keene.

You also might want to try some of the later Ruth Fieldings, which the Nancy Drew fans on Facebook’s Nancy Drew Fan Discussion Group tell me she also wrote.

The Mildred A. Wirt page at Fantastic Fiction has a comprehensive guide to the work she did under her own and various pen names. Again, thank you FB Nancy Drew fans!

Note that Wirt Benson wrote stories/series with both male and female protagonists. If you are reading with a boy or girl, though, don’t automatically limit them. Contrary to “folk teacher wisdom”, both boys and girls read and enjoy books with protagonists of a different gender.

Here is one of her major series to get you started.

This collection of vintage girl detective stories includes some of Wirt Benson’s work.

Other series that are completely out of print as of this writing:

Kay Tracey

Dana Girls

Blythe Girls

The Flying Girls

Honey Bunch

Series adamantly not recommended by Bobbie Ann Mason

Connie Blair

Beverly Gray


Cover Photo


National Museum of the United States Air Force. Girl mystery stories were often about girls having freedom to do things, so here is a woman who is both working as a nurse and flying, evoking two careers that were used to capture girls’ imagination.

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!