If your book club is looking for a fun book to read and reminisce about, then this is your book! Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak is the true story of the history of the Nancy Drew series. Note the title says women who created Nancy because Carolyn Keene is the pen name used by two different authors over the decades. But I get ahead of myself. Nancy was invented by Edward Stratemeyer of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Edward Stratemeyer also invented the Boobsey Twins series and the Hardy Boys series. Stratemeyer was a genius at creating fictional characters and plots for series. He would select ghost writers to write under his selected pen name and would then edit their manuscripts. This way he could have full and total control over the storyline and the profit of his series.
Girls were discovered as a reading demographic at the turn of the 20th century when series about girls began being published. In fact, in 1926, the New Republic magazine declared the 20th century the “Century of the Child.” With child labor laws and mandatory education, children had leisure time and book publishers responded. In 1925 alone, 25 million children’s books were published. Stratemeyer was very much a traditionalist and kept a tight reign on “his” characters. His female characters were not boy-crazy flappers in the 20’s, nor were they testing any moral boundaries in the post WW2 years. Nancy’s sidekicks, Bess and George were subject to the same scrutiny. George could be a tomboy, but not too masculine. Bess could be flighty and a little interested in boys, but not too much. The Nancy Drew series have been updated a few times over the last 50 years to keep the relevant.
So who were the two women who wrote as Carolyn Keene? The first was Mildred Wirt Benson, who also authored books of her own. Benson “invented Penny Parker, daughter of a newspaper editor, champion swimmer and diver, sophomore at Riverview High, and all-around wit.” Penny could be and do things Stratemeyer did not allow Nancy to be and do. After Mr. Stratemeyer died, Benson continued to write under the pen name Carolyn Keene. However, Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams eventually parted ways in 1953 over different visions of Nancy. Benson wrote 30 books in the series, and she had violated her NDA several times by stating she was Carolyn Keene. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took over the Syndicate when her father died and was fully aware that the Nancy Drew series was her family’s cash cow and had to be protected at all costs. Upon parting ways with Benson, Adams began writing the series in the same traditional vein. Adams declared on several occasions that she was Carolyn Keene and implied that she had always been Carolyn Keene. When Adams died in 1982, the question arose among Nancy fans and the publishing world of who was Carolyn Keene? Both Adams’ and Benson’s obituaries declare each woman was Carolyn Keene. This question is basically the thesis of Rehak’s book. So to all you Nancy fans, this book will give you an understanding of Nancy you’ve never had before.
Ponderings: I came of age before Nancy’s big update in the mid 1970s, and I found her to be a rather dated. I was big fan of the Trixie Beldon series instead.