Nancy Drew has been an American role model for 90 years…this is how it happened.

What’s wrong with series fiction?

What’s right about Nancy Drew?

American girls have been growing up with Nancy Drew since they were first published in 1929.  Teachers, parents, and librarians sometimes love to hate the series fiction, which Nancy Drew epitomizes, but the books certainly haven’t gone anywhere.

I was never particularly in to Nancy Drew because I didn’t like detective stories…although I did read a couple…but the older I get, the more I appreciate them, for the same reason I let my daughter watch the Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley (a video series in which the twins were girl detectives) when she was young: Nancy Drew does stuff, and she always did.  She also got to go places and do things, which gave in particular her original readers information about the world around them that they might not otherwise encounter. 

Nancy Drew had a car and drove it on her own when plenty of people, especially women and most especially teen-age girls, didn’t drive. Nancy Drew thought for herself, and pretty much went where she wanted and did what she wanted. She certainly was never afraid to stand up to anyone, especially the criminals, and do what needed to be done.

I’ve always been turned off by the idea of books that are ghost written because I thought they were formulaic.  My idea as an educator is that they are certainly fine for kids to read, especially when they are still in the learning stages, but I would also try to get them on to what I consider quality children’s literature. One way to get them across this bridge is to get them reading series that are written by one author and another is to try to link their interests in series fiction to “quality” books on similar topics. 

In recent years, I’ve become more aware of the importance of visualization and schema, which helps me better understand the phenomenon of series fiction.  According to research, readers who do not visualize what they read have difficulty moving beyond an American third grade (or 8 year old’s) reading level. 

Some children may need help making that connection between the words and images, and others, particularly if they are from low income backgrounds, may simply not have the life experiences to help them visualize what they read. 

You may think that an author is describing something perfectly well, but if you ask someone to draw from the description, you will quickly see how soon the description falls apart if the reader lacks either the vocabulary or the experience to understand the words.  The axiom, “A picture is worth 1000 words” is no joke!”.

For these reasons, I’ve come to appreciate series fiction. It helps young readers along in more ways than I thought.

So, in short, don’t hassle anyone about reading series.  What the series does is make it easier for readers because they don’t have to work so hard to visualize a new set of characters and a new set of settings.  Many of the series put the characters in a new setting each time, so even if that is unfamiliar, at least the reader understands the characters and can follow the plot.  In other words, the cognitive load on the reader is reduced. 

Some people need that, and some people enjoy the relaxation of returning to something familiar from time to time.

So what’s wrong with series fiction?

Nothing. It’s good to try to get children and young adults to try stand alone books because expanding their horizons is good for them, but in and of itself? Absolutely nothing.

Nancy Drew gave young adults a role model for a different way to be a kid, and a girl, and that’s saying a lot.

Collector Dean Burcham shows off his Nancy Drew collection Credit: Dean Burcham/Nancy Drew Collector’s Fan Facebook Group

Collector Dean Burcham shows off his Nancy Drew collection

Credit: Dean Burcham/Nancy Drew Collector’s Fan Facebook Group

Nancy Drew on film

In recent years, there have been many different video versions of Nancy Drew. If you’re a certain age, you might remember the television show in the early 80’s, but what you may not know is that there were a few feature films in the 30’s too. Here’s the first.

Check The Lois Level for upcoming posts on other favorite girls’ series, guided by the work of Bobbie Ann Mason (who is better known for her fiction) in The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide (1975).

Sustained Read

Puddle Jumper

Credit: Dean Burcham, who says the Hardy Boys was the series that started it all for him!

Credit: Dean Burcham, who says the Hardy Boys was the series that started it all for him!

Free Read

Quick Read

The Mystery of the Hardy Boys and the Invisible Authors, an article from The Atlantic that describes the modern day process for producing series fiction, including ghostwriters


The Story of Nancy Drew

The story of how Nancy Drew became the inter generational icon that she is reads almost like a plot of a Nancy Drew novel itself.

Many older versions of the story will contain contradictions of what you are about to read because aspects of the story were hidden or misconstrued for decades.  The version I’m about to tell you is from Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who created Her, published in 2005.

If you like Nancy Drew or are interested in reading the whole story yourself, this book is a very engaging work of academic nonfiction. That means it’s written in an academic format, with footnotes and references, but the style makes the story interesting and fun to read casually.

Overall, it reads much like a combined biography. The beginning is about Edward Stratemeyer. His part of the story ends just as the story of Nancy Drew begins, in 1930. The remainder of the book focuses on the lives of his daughters, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Edna Stratemeyer Squire in addition to the original author Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote the books based on outlines provided by Edward and Harriet.

Sustained Read

If you want to read this book, stop reading this post after this section. 

You will enjoy this book if you enjoy reading detailed description of publishing business practice for nearly a century.  I mean: I did, especially since much of the negotiation went on among the three women who were key in keeping the character alive, and also were a key means of keeping at least one major publishing house going during the Depression.  I can read almost anything on the subject of books, but what I especially enjoyed are the business negotiations carried on between the women. 

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find that my socialization as a female often makes me struggle with standing up for myself.  But here we see three women who make no apologies for putting themselves out there and riding the waves of what comes.

The Case of the Three Women and the Ghosts of the Depressed Nation

Once upon a time, there was a man named Edward Stratemeyer who made a lot of money running a book syndicate.  While the phrase “book syndicate” may sound shady to the modern ear, what Stratemeyer did was figure out how he could magically, and legally, turn 1 hit novel into 10 or more without actually writing 10 more. 

He started out as a children’s author, but he had so many good ideas for stories that he didn’t have time to write them all down, so instead, he wrote detailed outlines of the plots he had in his mind and hired secret writers, called ghost writers, to actually build the stories up into novels.  Stratemeyer used the revision process to train his ghost writers in his methods, and thus was able to create many books at once.

The Bobbsey Twins series is another famous Stratemeyer creation. Stratemeyer Syndicate / Public domain

The Bobbsey Twins series is another famous Stratemeyer creation.

Stratemeyer Syndicate / Public domain

Many years passed.  Edward married, and his wife gave birth to two daughters.  The whole family lived happily and well on the money from the syndicate, and his older daughter, Harriet, even went away to study at Wellesley College, when women’s going to university was somewhat unusual for a woman at that time.  Wellesley College was so prestigious that even students worked to maintain the college’s good name by monitoring how it was mentioned in the press, and Harriet helped with this endeavor.

His other daughter, Edna, stayed home and took care of her mother, who by then sadly was an invalid. 

Teacher and librarians complained about the books that Stratemeyer’s company created, but the truth is that they gave many children the chance to own books (because of their low cost) and get excited about reading, just like series books do now.

The funny thing was, however, that despite his two daughters, for a long time, Stratemeyer only created series for boys.  He reasoned that girls would read books about boys, but that boys won’t read books about girls, so books about boys were a better investment.

The Tom Swift was one of Stratemeyer’s popular series. J. Graham Kaye, illustrator / Public domain

The Tom Swift was one of Stratemeyer’s popular series.

J. Graham Kaye, illustrator / Public domain

Times change though, and over the years, he had a few series about girls, including Ruth Fielding, The Motor Girls and Outdoor Girls.

Ruth Fielding was an early Stratemeyer series that helped the company learn what to do…and not to do…in a series about a woman/girl. Stratemeyer Syndicate / Public domain

Ruth Fielding was an early Stratemeyer series that helped the company learn what to do…and not to do…in a series about a woman/girl.

Stratemeyer Syndicate / Public domain

Meanwhile, in Iowa, a young woman named Mildred Augustine grew up and also went to college, but instead of an elite women’s college like Wellesley, she joined the first generation of women becoming a “co-ed” at one of the large state-funded “public” universities in the Midwest, The University of Iowa.  It was also a time when women were playing sports in large numbers for the first time, and Iowa was also a strong “sports school”. Mildred joined in by playing basketball and soccer, and she also showed off her championship diving skills while studying journalism and working for one of the best university newspapers in the U.S.

So while Harriet learned public relations skills at Wellesley that later helped her run the Stratemeyer Syndicate and keep it afloat during The Depression, Mildred developed athleticism combined with independence as a university student and training and experience as a journalist that must have informed her characterization of Nancy Drew.

In the late 1920’s, when Stratemeyer was developing his new girls’ series, he looked around for a good ghost writer, and he found Mildred when she replied to an advertisement in a writer’s periodical.  So he worked with Mildred on the first book in the series.  He was happy with her writing, so he also assigned her the second and third books. 

The custom was to release three books all at once to get readers really hooked on the series, and then release subsequent books one at a time.

The first three Nancy Drews were published, and they were an instant success.

All was well. The United States was a rich country, Stratemeyer had made enough money to take care of his family, and the future of his company seemed assured.

Suddenly, however, Stratemeyer took sick and died.  To make matters worse, by then it was 1930, and the United States had entered what became known as “The Great Depression”, which was a 10 year period of economic problems in the U.S. (and other places).

Suddenly, everyday people were out of work and struggled to find jobs.  Of course, when money is tight, entertainment is one of the first things to go, and that included books, especially children’s books like these that were usually purchased by children from their pocket money rather than by libraries and schools. 

Although Stratemeyer had invested his money well and both his daughters and wives had enough to live on…if his widow downscaled her life…the future of the company was uncertain. 

The family tried to sell the company, but at this time, no one had money to invest in a children’s book company, especially since the deceased Stratemeyer was the “brains” of the operation in that he still wrote the plots for all of the books.  The sisters didn’t want to sell to someone who wouldn’t be able to run the company effectively even if they could find a buyer and make some quick cash.

Which you know, which is what a lot of people would have done. These women were well-to-do, had private incomes separate from the company, and were neither trained nor expected to work.

The syndicate’s publisher, Grosset & Dunlap, were devastated because they were counting on the next Nancy Drew to help pull the company through the financial problems caused by the Depression.  So if the Stratemeyer syndicate folded, not only would Stratemeyer’s employees be out of work but Grosset’s employees, and everyone in the book production chain, would also be affected. 

Normally, the deceased’s sons would take over, but Stratemeyer didn’t have any sons.

Harriet and Edith tried to sell the company, but they couldn’t find a buyer who could manage both the creative and business aspects.  So Harriet and Edith made a plan.

Although Harriet was a wife and mother of four children, she agreed to go into the office and run the business from there.  Edith didn’t want to go out in public like that, but she agreed to work on bookkeeping and related tasks at home, where she could also continue to oversee their mother’s care and be a companion for her.

So the two women drew on the skills they had and what they had learned from their father, and the business continued. Luckily, they seemed to inherit both their father’s business acumen and his ability to create numerous plots for upcoming books.

Harriet’s education at Wellesley along with the Public Relations experience she got there helped too.

  Now living in Ohio, Mildred continued to work at her profession by writing Nancy Drews along with other children’s novels, especially those featuring girls.  At first Mildred worked because she wanted to, and perhaps needed to do a job she could do from home because women were not supposed to work if their husbands had a job during the Depression.  Since there weren’t enough jobs to go around, only one person in the family was supposed to be employed.  But eventually her husband became too ill to work, so she had to support the family, and then her husband died, leaving her with a daughter to take care of.

Mildred was such a hard worker that she didn’t even tell Harriet, who was in New Jersey, that she was pregnant until after the baby was born, and she never missed a deadline!

Things continued like that for a while, but one day Edith fell in love, got married, and had a daughter, even though she was already in her 40’s.  After a few years, she left New Jersey, and moved with her husband to Florida.

As long as Edith lived, Harriet, who ran the business by herself, had to answer to Edith about everything she did.  In Florida, Edith nitpicked the family business by mail and also ventured into real estate with her husband.

Harriet continued to manage a stable of ghostwriters to produce Nancy Drew along with other series.

Time passed. Harriet lost a son in World War 2 and then her husband died.  She dealt with her sorrow by working harder.

Mildred kept ghost writing Nancy Drews for a long time, but eventually Harriet stopped sending her assignments.  By then however, Mildred had found a job at newspaper and had a long career as a reporter.  Eventually she also became a pilot!

Since Mildred had signed a contract to keep quiet about Nancy Drew, few people knew she had written the books, and eventually Harriet told people she wrote all of the books herself.  Part of the reason was to keep children from knowing that some of their favorite authors weren’t real, but also the Nancy Drew franchise became more and more important to Harriet as she got older and she became protective of her. That’s why some sources, especially those written while Harriet lived, credit Harriet as the author of the Nancy Drews. But obviously, that is only partly true. She and Edith developed the plots, but neither of them ever wrote a complete book themselves. But since Mildred Wirt Benson did not originate the idea of Nancy Drew or concoct any of the stories, you couldn’t say that she was the author either.

Eventually, the Stratemeyer contract moved from Grosset to another publisher, Simon and Schuster.  Despite some other changes Harriet made to the business, during all of those years she never moved away from the original publisher even though they refused to raise the Stratemeyers’ royalties for decades, so the Stratemeyer syndicate was eventually grossly underpaid.

After S&S took over, the Nancy Drews and other series that remained in print got rewritten.  Some things that were now considered too dangerous for children or just plain wrong (such as some racial issues) had to be changed, but the novels got shortened, and a lot of the craft that went into the original books was lost.  Also, many spin offs were created, some better than others.

Regardless, 90 years later, many girls, along with their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers have grown up reading Nancy Drew and knowing they could pretty much get anything done, all because three women didn’t quit (even when they could have) and got Nancy Drew, and a lot of real people, through the Depression.

Shelf of Nancy Drew books. Private collection. Celeste Lindell/flickr

Shelf of Nancy Drew books. Private collection.

Celeste Lindell/flickr

Art credit: Drew drawing Nancy

Art credit: Drew drawing Nancy