Elizabeth: Celebrating Nancy Drew (and resilience)

The original cover for the first Nancy Drew mystery, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” published April 28, 1930.

The original cover for the first Nancy Drew mystery, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” published April 28, 1930.

Over the past few weeks, our own Nancy talked about series here and here. Her posts got me to thinking about the very first series I remember reading: The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. You’ve undoubtedly all read at least some of them and maybe you even have a few of the familiar yellow bound books around the house somewhere.

This year marks the 85th year that the books have been in print. At a time when books can often fade into oblivion as soon as they’ve been read, these stories have shown remarkable staying power. Recent statistics I saw show that 80 million of the books have been sold worldwide and they have been translated into over 40 languages. That’s quite a feat.

For many young girls Nancy Drew launched a life-time love of reading and she inspired countless others to try their hand at telling their own stories. Show of hands – who has a smudged, hand-written attempt at the bottom of a drawer or box? The Clue in the Dusty Garage anyone?

“My taste for suspense that I picked up from those books later led me to Lois Duncan’s YA thrillers and Stephen King’s horror.” ~ Allison Chopin, New York Daily News

There are a number of reasons for this success beyond “the right story at the right time,” and they can apply to other stories as well, not just this particular childhood favourite.

Agency

One thing all of the articles I read about Nancy Drew in the past few weeks agreed on was that Nancy had agency. She was determined, brilliant, fierce, plucky, independent, and full of zeal. She knew what she wanted and did whatever she needed to do to get past the obstacles in her path and solve those mysteries. Her boyfriend Ned Nickerson played the sidekick in many of the stories, and friends Bess and George helped out, but Nancy was the hero. She gave readers something to dream about and aspire to, and she did it on her own terms. She was a strong character upon which a universe was created. Any series, whether it’s about a teenaged sleuth, an aristocratic family, or a group of college friends can benefit from a strong main character with agency.

“The concept of a strong girl hero is no longer unusual. Nancy Drew is the reason.” ~ Theodore Jefferson

Relevance

I first read the stories in their initial 1930s/1940s versions, like the one pictured above. Nancy wore stockings and heels, modest clothing and a lovely cloche hat, and solved her mysteries despite the constraints of the 1930s/40s. Over the years, the some of the initial stories were revised to keep them relevant and new stories reflected the time in which they were written. Nancy’s roadster gave way to a convertible, and these days I hear she drives a hybrid. She has a cell phone, so she no longer needs to rely on a switchboard operator to help her place a call, and she can do her sleuthing via computer rather than sneaking through those spooky mansions. After decades in print, Nancy Drew has remained relevant because she and her stories have transformed, right along with society.

“Not bad for someone who, despite commemorating her 85th year this past week, has never turned 19.” ~ Hayley Tsukayama, The Switch

Romance novels are no strangers to the concept of relevance either. I’ve read several authors who have taken some of their early releases and rewritten / refreshed them to make them appealing to modern readers. The ability to adapt/change in order to remain relevant with readers is key for long-term success.

Expansion

Nancy Drew has not only evolved with the times and with technology, she has also expanded into other areas besides traditional physical books. At various times, Nancy starred on both the small screen and the big screen. She also went digital and can be found in a series of interactive video games that have sold more than 9 million copies since their debut in 1998.

While you might not have plans to turn a series into a video game, the possibility of expanding your writing beyond the covers of a book (physical or eBook) is a valid consideration. Several of the authors I follow via Facebook or their own websites, provide added content to readers, beyond the basic books, whether it be extra chapters, video clips, games, or other fun extras like behind-the scenes information. You can cruise with a writer (Susan Elizabeth Phillips – “Seppies At Sea”) or hone your writing craft in Italy with a writer (Eloisa James via Minerva Education).   Expansion is a way to connect with new readers as well as to keep existing readers engaged. Keeping existing readers engaged can be crucial since not all of us are on the Nora Roberts 45-days-to-write-a-book schedule.

I can definitely credit the Nancy Drew stories with instilling both a love of reading and a love of mysteries. Even my current WIP – aka The Secret of the False Accusations – reflects that.

So, what childhood favourites set you down the reading and/or writing path?

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Celebrating Nancy Drew (and resilience)

  1. Nancy Drew was great, and one of the first things I read. My mom had turned me on to them, and the ones I read were probably at least from the 50s, so were a bit dated when I started reading them. I didn’t care. Nancy was cool, and even then, I did like a bit of history.

    I don’t remember a whole lot from them, but I do remember one thing: more of the same. There’d be more of the characters I’d come to love (and had built up in my head), more thrills and creepy houses and bad guys, and a happy ending where Nancy had Solved the Crime.

    (-: When I ran out of Nancy Drew, there were the Hardy Boys waiting a couple of shelves over. And Cherry Ames, student nurse. And Trixie Belden! And I believe there was a stewardess, as well.

    I think the Xanth series by Piers Anthony was formative in my path to writing. When I read them as a teen, I realized a writer could combine fun, outrageous puns and a quest into a book — and get paid for it! Anthony, in the tradition of Asimov and other SF writers, included a page or two about his process with nearly every book, if I remember right. My friends and I were allowed to do a special project where we “wrote” a book in junior high. (-: I remember it as being a mash-up of Xanth and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Some books do not hold up once one is outside childhood; the Suck Fairy visited, and I no longer read those fantastic fantasy novels. But I owe them a debt, nevertheless.

    P.S. Isn’t that a great cover? My gosh, it’s hard to believe 16-year-olds used to dress like that.

    • Ah yes Michaeline, Trixie, Cherry, the Dana Girls, and a number of others were in my reading family as well as I worked my way through the local library. I read some Piers Anthony too, but that was so long ago I don’t remember a thing about them. Mostly, I migrated to the mystery/romance section of the library, something my science-fiction loving friends used to mock me about to no end.

      I love the cover too. I have a number of the old books in the series with their paper jackets. They have some really great art-work on them.

  2. A grade school librarian turned me on to a series of historical biographies (one of which I found in print recently). All featured a historical figure (Abigail Adams for example) as a child. Loved those books and read the entire series (I wish I could remember the librarian’s name and thank her properly).

    The first book I ever received for my own (Christmas gift and I squeed over it more than Barbie), was “Secret of Shadow Ranch” (Nancy on a black stallion while storm clouds gathered menacingly behind her.) I still have it as well as “The Clue in the Crumbling Wall” (my fav). I spent hours reading those books and still love them (remember Nancy’s roadster?)

    • Kat – I too had a wonderful librarian that got me reading all kinds of wonderful books. I used to think she had the perfect job – being surrounded by books all day.

      Secret of Shadow Ranch is just the title I would have thought was on your list. I’d be hard pressed to pick my own favourite though – too many to choose from.

  3. I never read Nancy Drew though I did have Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Mallory Towers and Brer Rabbit. Black Beauty. Little Women. The Narnia books and The Hobbit. Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (Micki, these might be your cuppa!).

    My dad used to work on Saturdays and I’d go to his office with him, sit in a corner, and read. The children’s library (yep, our town had a whole library just for children’s books in those days) was next door and I read my way through everything they had. There were some great books in there – I wish I could remember more. I owe that librarian a debt of gratitude.

    • I’m envious about a whole library for children’s books. The branch library I practically lived at during the summers had only a modest section, though it kept me entertained for ages. I too wish I could remember more of the stories I read. I know I had many favourites – frequently stories that involved large families.

    • Oh, yes, childhood librarians. I loved mine. When I was a freshman in high school, she hired me over the summer to put all the books in order. And then she fired me because I read too much.

      Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon. They were my adventure stories.

      • Ah – Miss Cook – that was her name. Wonderful librarian. I still remember when I was allowed to pick my first book from the “grown-up” side of the library. The Lark Shall Sing by Elizabeth Cadell. There was no stopping me after that.

    • I heard about the Famous Five on QI, and had a longing to buy a bunch of them to see what they were about. (-: But, I suspect that ship has passed for me, and also, my TBR pile is still too high. I want to get through some Maria Snyder before I order anymore pleasure books. (Although, maybe they’d be online?)

  4. Oh my gosh, if you get me started on childhood mystery series, I might never shut up! I had a mystery book in my hand almost constantly from kindergarten through at least age 12. I’d take the occasional detour into Little House on the Prairie, Narnia, and Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series (which I loved beyond all reason!), but I’d always come back to the mysteries. For me, first it was The Three Investigators, then Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and if I was really desperate, Cherry Ames (they were fun books, but they were very dated by the time I read them).

    When I was about to turn 10, I convinced my mom to get me a subscription to the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for my birthday. I don’t even know how I’d learned about it in those pre-Internet days. Soon after that, I added Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes books to my canon. A few years later, I read my first romance, written by Roberta Gellis, which sent me careening down a different reading/writing path, but (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) I still love mysteries!

    • Nancy, sounds like our early reading lists have a lot in common. I too constantly had a book in hand and was frequently told to “get your nose out of that book and go outside and play.” Needless to say, when I went outside, it was often to climb the big tree in the front yard and read there.

      I enjoyed Cherry Ames and can probably credit her, at least partially, with an early desire to be a nurse.

  5. That was a great question for prodding me to think about memories that are mostly lost in the mists of time. Pushing way, way back in the dustbins of my mind, I find myself remembering “Mother West Wind” and the other related books by Thorton W. Burgess. They were more than a bit like the “Just So Stories” by Rudyard Kipling, with talking animals serving as characters in what was essentially a morality play for children. Being read those books at age 5 set me up for everything from “A Wrinkle in Time” to “Time Travelers Strictly Cash”.

  6. Pingback: Michille: Adverbs and Other Writing ‘Mistakes” | Eight Ladies Writing

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