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Nancy Drew - And The Case Of Her 90th Birthday

One of the things I enjoy reading is mysteries. I love trying to determine the ending from the clues the author has left. I have certain criteria about mysteries, tho – the ending can’t be too easy; nor too contrived. I don’t ready anything overly violent or bloody, and not too sinisterly creepy (although I will make an exception for Dean Koontz), and nothing that has an “end of the world” feel to it. While that might sound picky, I’ll read anything from Agatha Christie to John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, David Baldacci…well – there are too many to list.

I’m pretty sure the first full-fledged chapter books I read were mysteries: specifically, the Nancy Drew mysteries. I had them ALL, my first prized collection of books. The original 56-book collection, that is. They were the first books that really took me away to another place, where I would get lost, feeling like I was riding around with Nancy and her best friends Bess & George in her blue roadster, solving mysteries. I wanted to grow up and be a “girl detective” like Nancy.

Nancy Drew has been a cultural icon for a lot of women (and who knows, maybe some boys, as well!). Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Sonia Sotomayor both listed Nancy as a positive female literary character when they were growing up; as well as Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. There’s nothing better than reading about an intelligent, brave and clever young women when you’re also hoping you’re intelligent, brave and clever.

This year, the Nancy Drew stories turn 90!! It’s hard to believe, in a way, that the first Nancy Drew book, The Secret of the Old Clock, was published in 1930 – Nancy was independent, feisty, and not at all a wall flower. And while I devoured the Nancy Drew books as a kid, I learned today that I very little about Nancy, the author Carolyn Keene, or what Nancy has been up to since I stopped reading the series after the 56th book!

For starters, the books were produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym for several authors who wrote the popular books. The first author was Mildred Wirt Benson, who was paid $125 per book and was required by her contract to give up all rights to the work and to maintain confidentiality. I think it’s interesting that the second author of the original Nancy Drew series was a gentleman, a retired US naval captain, Walter Karig. Besides writing Nancy Drew (and signing the same contract

regarding confidentiality) he also wrote a number of works on Allied naval operations during WWII, scripts for the television series Victory at Sea, and several novels that were published under his own name. I like the idea of a grizzled old Navy Captain (I have no idea what he looked like – he could have been young and un-grizzled) writing about girl detectives.

Walter Karig also didn’t keep it a secret that he was writing Nancy Drew novels, and often talked about it. He was promptly fired and Mildred Benson was re-hired and she continued to write 23 of the original volumes. It wasn’t until 1979, when the Stratemeyer Syndicate sold the rights to the series to Simon and Schuster that it became common knowledge that Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym.

Over the decades, Nancy has evolved in response to changes in US culture and tastes. The books were extensively revised and shortened, beginning in 1959, in part to lower printing costs with arguable success. In the revision process, the heroine's original character was changed to be less unruly and violent. (I want to read the ones where Nancy was unruly and violent!! I can’t imagine that, to be honest).

In the 1980s, an older and more professional Nancy emerged in a new series, The Nancy Drew Files, that included romantic subplots for the sleuth. Nancy Drew proves continuously popular worldwide: at least 80 million copies of the books have been sold, and the books have been translated into over 45 languages. Nancy Drew is featured in five films, three television shows, and a number of popular computer games; she also appears in a variety of merchandise sold around the world.

Today, Nancy is still going strong! Were you a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys reader? Or are you still? What were some of the first books you remember reading?

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