Duck Duck Book

28 – girl sleuth
01.2.2006, 5:03 pm
Filed under: literature

Girl sleuth : Nancy Drew and the women who created her / Melanie Rehak. 
Orlando : Harcourt, c2005.
[call number: 813.5 R345g 2005; 12 copies, no holds]

Just about 100 years ago, children’s author Edward Stratemeyer began a small empire based on a brilliant business notion.  He developed ideas for children’s book series, wrote plot outlines for each story, and (this is the wickedly brilliant bit) contracted the writing to other authors.  Stratemeyer retained rights to the characters, plot, stories, and pseudonyms under which the books were written, developed relationships with several publishing houses, and collected all the royalties for the series.  The entire business was operated under a cloak of secrecy so that little girls and boys would think the books’ stated authors were real people, and more importantly so that Edward Stratemeyer could control the management of the series and maximize his own profits.  By the 1920s he was a millionaire, and a 1926 survey reported that 98% of children asked about their favorite book named a Stratemeyer title. 

In 1929 Stratemeyer contracted the first three books in a new series with author Mildred A. Wirt, who had previously written books for his Ruth Fielding series.  The new series starred a teen-aged detective named Nancy Drew — a brilliant, level-headed girl, a natural leader with a head for a mystery.  Girl Sleuth is the story of Nancy Drew, her creators and authors (writing under the name “Carolyn Keene”), and the impact she has had on the publishing industry.  A bit of attention is also paid to Nancy Drew’s impact on American girlhood and on the feminist movements of the 1960s and later.

Girl Sleuth takes two of the most prolific “Carolyn Keenes” as its main characters: Mildred A. Wirt and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Edward’s daughter, who inherited the Syndicate on his death shortly after the first Nancy Drew books were published in 1930.  Although Wirt and Adams were not the only authors to write Nancy Drew books, they were arguably the most influential.  Wirt was the first author and forged the structure of the stories and shaped Nancy’s character and environment; Adams took over writing the Nancy Drew stories in the mid 1950s and acted as the public face of the pseudonym Carolyn Keene from the 1960s until her death in 1982.

Wirt’s and Adams’s lives and careers are the main thread of Rehak’s narrative, and the book provides a fairly detailed biography of each woman, with a discussion of their working relationship and each of their involvement in the creation and production of the Nancy Drew books, the history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and the development of Nancy Drew the character and the series over the years.  Although Rehak’s introduction gushes rather appallingly about Nancy and what she has meant to the generations of girls who read about her, the book as a whole is a rational, fascinating account and reads easily.

A thorough section of endnotes, a brief bibliography, and an excellent index follow the text.


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