Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve
I'm Shirley Griffith. Our subject this week is the teenage investigator in one
of the most successful children's book series of all time -- Nancy Drew.
SUSAN LARSON: "Put down that book and go outside and
Larson still remembers her mother's reaction. Susan was about ten years old,
growing up in the Midwest, when she discovered Nancy Drew. She enjoyed the
mysteries. But there was something else that she especially enjoyed.
SUSAN LARSON: "I wanted to do so much more than
girls could do back then. So it was exciting for me to read about this girl,
Nancy Drew, who was eighteen and drove a sports car and helped her Dad solve
crime. And I read more than I went outside and played and made my mom
Susan Larson grew up and became a librarian. She works in
the Fairfax County Public Library, the largest system in Virginia. She still
talks warmly about the Nancy Drew series which has been around for almost
Simon and Schuster says it has sold two hundred million copies of Nancy Drew
books in twenty-five languages around the world. Mothers have given copies to
their daughters, who saved them for their own daughters.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham
Clinton read Nancy Drew. So did all three of the women ever to serve on the
United States Supreme Court. They are the retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor,
the current Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the newest justice, Sonia
Another reader who was influenced by the
original Nancy Drew series is Janet Evanovich. She writes best sellers about a
female bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum. Bounty hunters act as unofficial law
Recognize a pattern here?
Jennifer Fisher is a lawyer and Nancy
Drew collector in Arizona who organizes Nancy Drew conventions.
JENNIFER FISHER: "There's a lot of fans I come
across who have gone on to have careers in law enforcement or become attorneys
like myself. And I think that Nancy's great sense of, you know, fighting for
justice and helping others was a great inspiration."
is Nancy Drew? She is a teenager whose mother died when she was very young. She
lives with her father and their housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, in the town of River
Heights. Nancy is pretty and popular. She has a boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, and
two best girlfriends, Bess Marvin and George Fayne.
Nancy is always investigating mysterious wrongdoing,
and often faces danger. She is trapped in trunks, closets, and locked rooms.
But in the end she always succeeds.
Larson reads a scene from Nancy Drew's first adventure, "The Secret of the
SUSAN LARSON: "Nancy struggled to get away. She
twisted and squirmed, kicked and clawed. But she was helpless in the viselike
grip of the powerful man.
"'Let me go!' Nancy cried, struggling harder. 'Let
"Sid, ignoring her pleas, half dragged her across
the room. Opening the closet door, he flung her inside."
"Nancy heard a key turn."
"'Now you can spy all you want!' Sid sneered. 'But
to make sure nobody'll let you out, I'll just take this key along.'"
"When Nancy could no longer hear the tramp of his
heavy boots she was sure Sid had left the house. For a moment a feeling of
great relief engulfed her."
"But the next instant Nancy's heart gave a leap.
As she heard the muffled roar of the van starting up in the distance, a
horrifying realization gripped her."
"'They've left me here to -- to starve!'"
All of the Nancy Drew books were written by Carolyn
Keene -- or so readers are supposed to believe. In reality there was no Carolyn
writer Edward Stratemeyer came up with the idea of
Nancy Drew in nineteen twenty-nine. He wanted to create a series for girls who
were about ten to twelve years old.
But Stratemeyer did not
write the books either. He had a system. He would describe characters and
plots, then have ghostwriters expand those ideas into a book.
writers had to sign agreements never to admit their work. In return, they
earned one hundred twenty-five dollars, later raised to two hundred fifty
dollars, for each book.
Stratemeyer Syndicate also invented authors for other popular children's
series. These included Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys.
first Nancy Drew books were published in April of nineteen thirty. That was ten
years after American women gained a constitutional right to vote. And it was
six months after the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression.
first ghostwriter was Mildred Wirt Benson. Her identity became widely known years
later as a result of a legal fight between Stratemeyer Syndicate and its former
publisher. She was a journalism graduate of the University of Iowa. She was
twenty-four when she wrote "The Secret of the Old Clock" and other
early Nancy Drew books.
Mildred Benson disagreed with Edward
Stratemeyer's traditional ideas about women. She thought girls could, and
should, do the same things as boys. So she made Nancy Drew independent -- or
"spunky" as she is often described.
There was not much that Stratemeyer
could do about it. He died in May of nineteen thirty, just two weeks after the
first three books were published.
His two daughters took over the company. But that did
not mean all the women involved with Nancy Drew agreed on how she should act.
Reports from the time say the Stratemeyer daughters felt she should be more
Benson wrote twenty-three of the first thirty "Nancy Drew Mystery Stories,"
the name given the original series. The series expanded over the years to one
hundred seventy-five books.
But collector Jennifer Fisher says more than five
hundred Nancy Drew books have been published. These include more recent ones
such as "Nancy Drew on Campus" in which Nancy is a college student. Another
series aimed for younger readers with an eight-year-old Nancy in "The
Nancy Drew Notebooks."
modern world of Nancy Drew also includes a series of graphic novels. And there
is the continuing series "Nancy Drew: Girl Detective."
Simon and Schuster publicist Anna McKean
says the girl detective stays true to her roots but is "ultra-modern."
She drives an environmentally friendly hybrid and checks her e-mail on a
BlackBerry. Storylines have explored things such as bullying, cyberspace and
nineteen fifty-nine, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams began rewriting the original
series of books that her father created. She got her chance to change Nancy's
personality. She made her quieter and more polite.
She also changed the name of
Nancy's friend from George Fayne to Georgia and made "George" her
nickname. In the original series the girl was named after her grandfather.
the rewrites also removed some parts from the early books that might have seemed
racially offensive to later generations.
Deanna Raybourn is an American mystery
writer. Her Lady Julia Grey series is set in England in the late eighteen
hundreds. Still, she says her books reflect the Nancy Drew stories that she
read as a child:
DEANNA RAYBOURN: "Things that I read as a kid keep
cropping up in my own work whether I realize it or not. Nancy has a lot of
similarities to my Lady Julia. They're affluent, they are motherless, they have
doting fathers. Their besetting sin is curiosity and they get themselves into
trouble because they snoop in places where they shouldn't."
Another successful mystery writer who read Nancy Drew
is Nevada Barr. She writes the best selling series about park ranger Anna Pigeon.
Nevada Barr remembers reading Nancy Drew books the summer she was eleven years
NEVADA BARR: "My vision is of an incredibly
beautiful girl who seemed quite old to me when I was eleven. But you always
remember that she had this incredible freedom that most children don't have and
she was so smart."
"They didn't do a lot with really smart girls in
literature when I was young. And I think that was one of the things that made
Nancy Drew special -- this was in the fifties or early sixties -- was that this
girl survived by her wits and that was a new thing."
the years, Nancy Drew has appeared in movies and television shows, but without
very much success. Nancy Drew expert Jennifer Fisher says the reason is no
mystery. The stories on the screen had little in common with the books.
Nancy Drew does not capture everyone's imagination. Susan Larson was a
children's librarian in the late nineteen nineties and early two thousands. She
remembers that young girls often considered the original books too old
fashioned. There was not enough action.
fact, she says one of her great disappointments was that her own daughters did
not like the books nearly as much as she did as a girl.
Rhodes also works at the Fairfax County Public Library. In graduate school she
wrote a paper on Nancy Drew. She says the original books -- written during the
Depression -- served as an escape from difficult economic times.
The books told young girls that they can be more than just
someone's wife or daughter. As Elizabeth Rhodes says, that was a revolutionary
message for its time. Nancy Drew may not represent classic literature. But
after all these years, the message is still worth reading.
program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve
I'm Shirley Griffith. Transcripts and podcasts of our programs can be found at
voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA