When I was about 9 years old, I met my first feminist. Her name was Nancy Drew and she lived in two places: in the mythical town of River Heights and inside me.
Although I didn't know anyone quite like this independent, spirited, intelligent teen-ager who chased down mysteries in her snappy blue roadster, Nancy Drew was as real to me as a close friend.
So great was my involvement with this young sleuth that even now I can still summon up instantly the names and plots of my favorite Nancy Drew books: "The Secret of the Old Clock." "The Mystery at Lilac Inn." "The Clue in the Crumbling Wall." And the thrill of holding a new Nancy Drew book in my hand, my mind already conjuring up fantasies based on the title, lives on: It revisits me every time I begin a book.
So you can imagine the anticipation I felt recently when a friend gave me a Nancy Drew book from her 11-year-old daughter's bookshelf. She warned me it was a revised version of the original -- all the Nancy Drew books as well as the Hardy Boys series were rewritten in 1959 -- and that I should be prepared for some changes.
But her warning in no way prepared me for the "modernized" Nancy Drew. With its plot simplified to the point of dullness, its characters reduced to superficial descriptions and its vocabulary demoted to "easier" words, the new, revised Nancy was a huge '' letdown.
Driving her rented Honda through the Hamptons -- a posh New York beach resort -- in search of boys and romance, this new Nancy just didn't measure up to the one I remembered. Of course, maybe it was only the child in me remembering the old Nancy as an inspiring example of what an independent-thinking girl could do.
That reaction, as it turns out, was exactly what book publisher Phil Zuckerman experienced -- although in his case it had to do with the Hardy Boys. It happened to him while he was reading a Hardy Boys book, "The Mystery of Cabin Island," to his 6-year-old son, Andy. Mr. Zuckerman had read the book at the age of 12 and remembered it, he says, as "the beginning of my relationship to reading."
But something happened as he read the book to his son. "It wasn't at all what I remembered, and I was very disappointed. It seemed so sanitized and watered down. The book I remembered was much richer and more exciting."
So he searched out a copy of the original book to find out whether his memories were correct. He read it to his son -- and to the boy within himself. "It was so marvelous compared to what we had just read in the rewritten book," he says. "And even though the language is more difficult, Andy really preferred the original."
Now, thanks to Phil Zuckerman and his belief that children don't necessarily prefer easier books, readers of all ages soon will be able to buy the original versions of the books they loved as youngsters. In September, Applewood Books will reissue the first three books of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, complete with reproductions of the original dust covers.
Still, there's always the chance that today's young readers coulturn their backs on these books that may seem dated to them; books that don't contain breezy plots involving either shopping at malls or the adventures of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In fact, despite all the beautifully written and illustrated children's books you see today, when children buy their own books, it's a different story.
A Publishers Weekly listing of the 20 best-selling paperback children's books of 1990 is a lesson in contemporary merchandising. Nine of the books on the list are Ninja Turtles books and two have to do with the New Kids on the Block.
Harper's magazine -- in an article titled "Reading May Be Harmful Your Kids" -- suggests that this linking of a book with a product heralds a new form of children's books: "the book designed for the consumer child." More and more books, according to the article, have a product tie-in and come with related videos, lunch boxes, T-shirts, calendars, games.
The publishing of children's books, it seems, is now a "market-driven" $1 billion business.
Still, I have experienced first-hand the power of bringing together a book and a child's imagination. And once you have known the thrill of solving the Clue of the Broken Locket or discovering the Password to Larkspur Lane, it's not hard to imagine that right now -- even as I write -- some young girl is racing the storm in her snappy, blue roadster, headed for River Heights.