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Nancy Drew: The Secret of the Girl Detective


Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.


And 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 play!"


Susan 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 mad."


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 eighty years.

Publisher 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 Sotomayor.

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 enforcement agents.

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."


Who 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.

Susan Larson reads a scene from Nancy Drew's first adventure, "The Secret of the Old Clock":

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 me go!'"

"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 Keene.

Children's 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.

These uncredited 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.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate also invented authors for other popular children's series. These included Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys.


The 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.

The 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 ladylike.


Mildred 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."

The 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 reality TV.


In 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.

But 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 old.

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."


Over 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.

Yet 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.

In 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.


Elizabeth 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.



Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Shirley Griffith. Transcripts and podcasts of our programs can be found at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.