The Changing Face of Nancy Drew

There are certain advantages to being the daughter of a bookstore manager.  Chief among them: free books!  (though it’s been awhile, Dad.  What’s up with that?)  When I was a kid, dad would periodically bring home a stack of paperbacks, none of which had covers.  See, in bookstore land, sellers sent covers of books that didn’t sell back to the publisher and tossed the books themselves.  Unless you knew the right people.

At any rate, this had a few effects on young Melissa:  1.  Getting a book of my very own with a cover on it was a Very Big Deal.  2.  I have no memories of cover art.  3.  If I find certain books at used book stores where the spine matches my memory, I have to buy them.  Because see, even though I had the complete All-of-a-Kind Family series, they completely fell apart and I’ve had to replace them as an adult.  And that’s not the only example.

This random method of acquiring books led to me discovering many favorites quite by accident.  But one of my favorites to discover were the Nancy Drew Case Files.  Even better?  The books where she and the Hardy Boys teamed up.  I read these books over and over again, until they quite literally fell apart.  I imagined myself being best friends with Nancy, doing a much better job of helping her solve mysteries than Bess and George. 

Some time in my adult life, I realized that  Carolyn Keene was just a pen name.  But I really don’t remember how I figured that out.  And at some point during my interest in children’s literature, I heard about the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  But it wasn’t until I finished Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak that I realized what a profound impact Nancy had on 20th century life.  People, you really need to read this book!

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created HerThis is a book that doesn’t just examine the cultural impact of Nancy (which is pretty considerable), but how her story fits into 20th century women’s history.  The Statemeyer Syndicate, founded by Edward Stratemeyer, was the power behind many favorite series: the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana Girls, Tom Swift Jr., the Hardy Boys, and of course, Nancy.  Honestly, the Stratemeyer Syndicate sounds a bit mafia-like–and it was definitely a case that once you were in, you couldn’t talk about it and you were never completely free.  Stratemeyer  hired a team of ghost writers and did everything he could to keep that quiet.  When he died, just after creating the character of Nancy and outlining the first 3 books in the series, his daughters carried on the tradition of secrecy.

The women that were truly responsible for the Nancy we know and love was Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, head of the syndicate, and Mildred Wirt Benson, the ghost writer for most of the books.  In the 1930s, they were women that did it all–balancing work and family in a way that we still struggle to today.  Nancy, too, was a part of this “new woman” trend–the women who went to work during WWI, started voting, and were no longer quite so reliant on a man to take care of them.

Rehak seamlessly blends the back-story with the greater context of 20th century history.  It truly boggles the mind to think how many kids read stories created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  I honestly can’t think of another company that had such an impact on generations of children–even though not many people really knew the Syndicate was behind so many best-sellers.  She explores the ins and outs of the updates, the different writers, the changes–it’s fascinating stuff.

Though I wouldn’t necessarily put the Nancy Drew books in the category of “kidlit history,” her character grew and developed with the changing times.  How many other characters in literature have new books written about them for 70 years?  The Nancy of 1930 isn’t quite the Nancy of 1988, but she’s still familiar to generations of readers.  And she’s still incredibly popular today.  Just doing a bit of web research, I ran across this website–there’s a convention coming up next year.

So, were you a Nancy fan?  When did you first read them?  And have you gone back and read them again?

5 responses to “The Changing Face of Nancy Drew”

  1. I was never as big a fan of Nancy as I was of the Hardy Boys – at least as far as the mysteries were concerned. What I really liked about the Nancy Drew books (the old ones) were the descriptions of the parties and events the girls always had. Those parts of the books always reminded me more of the Anne books, or the Betsy-Tacy books, and that was always fun. The mystery part was usually (to my mine) lame, and the Hardy Boys could have solved it in half the time it took Nancy!

    I do remember reading all the Nancy Drew Casefiles, and I had to laugh as soon as I saw the cover you featured – all I could think was: “Blueberry eyes!” Isn’t it funny the things you remember? I don’t remember a thing about the story itself, but I remember the guy-who-wasn’t-Ned had “blueberry” eyes!


  2. I noticed your blog entry about children’s literature and the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and wanted to introduce myself. My grandfather, Andrew Svenson, was a partner in the Syndicate and wrote the Happy Hollisters series under the pseudonym Jerry West. The Hollister children were patterned on his own children: my father, aunts, and uncles.

    I thought you might be interested in some exciting news! Over the years we’ve heard from many fans who have fond memories of the wholesome Hollister family and their exciting adventures. Many fans want to share the stories with their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, but don’t want to give up their collectors’ editions. We have just released a new paperback edition of the first book in the series, The Happy Hollisters. The story is identical to the original, with its family-friendly dialogue and charming illustrations.

    If you’d like to learn more about this new edition, and see pictures of the “real” Hollister family, please visit our website: or join our Facebook group

    Thank you for sharing your memories of the Stratemeyer Syndicate!
    Andrew E. Svenson III


    1. Dear Andrew,
      I loved each and every story in The Happy Hollisters series! Thank you for sharing the background on the books that made my childhood very happy!


  3. […] is, until I wrote this post and got a comment from the grandson of Andrew Svenson aka Jerry West, author of the Happy […]


  4. […] Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. I was definitely a Nancy Drew girl back in the day, though at times I really preferred the Hardy Boys because they had better adventures. The story of how these books were created–and how they shaped American culture. My rave review here. […]


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