New era of clues for Nancy Drew

The Education Beat

Changes: The timeless teen-age heroine has evolved into a 21st-century sleuth.

January 13, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

AN ASSOCIATED Press story last week profiled Millie Benson, a 96-year-old author who still writes a column for the Toledo Blade but is best known for bringing to life a young detective named Nancy Drew.

Benson wrote 23 of the original Nancy Drew stories under the pen name Carolyn Keene. She got paid $125 per book, according to the AP story, and never collected royalties from the books, movies, board games and other products flowing from the adventures of Nancy and her sidekicks, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.

Reading the story, I was transported back to the winter of 1952, a kids' Christmas party in the lobby of the First National Bank in downtown Helena, Mont., and Betty Sullivan, with whom I was deeply in love at the age of 11. I presented Betty with the newest volume in the Nancy Drew series - I can't remember the title - and vowed faithfulness forever.

Nearly half a century later, Nancy, George and Bess are still going, and I hope Betty is. She and I liked Nancy better than the Hardy Boys and had been following her adventures in chronological order since we discovered her first one, The Secret of the Old Clock, which Benson, then Mildred Wirt, wrote in 1930.

We imagined Carolyn Keene as a real person, little knowing that she was actually a syndicate, and little knowing that Wirt/Benson had a clause in her contract barring her from disclosing the real name of the Nancy Drew ghost writer. Those were days of blessed innocence. We didn't speculate on the relationship between Nancy's widowed father and his faithful servant Hannah Gruen, or why he needed a servant in the first place. He was a wealthy lawyer with only a teen-age daughter to support.

Nor did we notice that Nancy grew from 16 to 18 years old between books, or that she never went to school. For Nancy, it was an endless summer.

The story was the thing, and "Carolyn Keene's" plots were so exciting that we'd read the books under bed covers by flashlight, then discuss them endlessly the next day. Nancy was blue-eyed, blond and fearless. Bess and George were her foils - girl cousins who were opposites: Bess, graceful, flirtatious and (in the early books) overweight; George, athletic and tomboyish. The plots always ended happily, usually with everyone praising Nancy's detective work. Felonies were committed, including kidnapping, but there was seldom bloodshed.

Today, of course, Nancy Drew is a multimillion-dollar industry, and her name is embedded in our culture. There have been Nancy Drew movies, plays, television shows and a highly praised CD-ROM series with such titles as Message in a Haunted Museum, which allow youngsters to solve crimes interactively. A Sun colleague says the games, recommended "For Adventurous Girls 10 and up," are well-suited for kids of the "bridge ages," those too old for children's books and too young for the steamier books appealing to teen-agers.

To get an idea of how Nancy Drew has matured, I checked out a sampling from the 83 Drew books in stock one day last week at the Catonsville library. The seven books I read ranged chronologically from The Mystery of the Ivory Charm, copyright 1936 (13th in the original series), to Lost in the Everglades, copyright 2001 (161st in the current series).

It's fun to watch the styles change with the times, while Nancy remains 18 (except for one series called Nancy Drew Notebooks, in which our heroine is 8). She graduates from roadsters to Mustangs to sports cars. Her hairdo on the cover of a later edition of Ivory Charm is a modest flip, and she's wearing a sweater revealing absolutely nothing. On the cover of Lost in the Everglades, the hair is shoulder-length and very blond, and there's lots more skin.

On page 7 of Everglades, "Nancy was glad she was wearing her favorite white shorts and a powder blue tank top." The only tank tops Betty and I saw in 1952 were in Korea.

Of course, by the 1990s, Nancy is thoroughly modern technologically. The E-Mail Mystery (1998) begins with the detective putting on "well-cushioned running shoes" and attaching a portable cassette player to her waistband for a brief jog before sleuthing.

If my unscientific survey is accurate, the reading difficulty of Nancy Drew declined over the decades. In general, Ivory Charm has longer words and requires more background knowledge, particularly about India. The text in Lost in the Everglades is simpler by perhaps a grade level. A typical passage: "Maybe this is a clue! Nancy thought excitedly."

The Catonsville library had only two of the 1930s Drew books in stock, not enough to draw firm conclusions. But I found them clearly superior. Nancy is more independent, more three-dimensional - in short, more interesting.

Chuck Rabinovitz, a fourth-grade teacher at Piney Ridge Elementary School in Carroll County, confirmed my impression. Ten- and 11-year-olds have so much more to choose from in 2002 than we did in 1952, he pointed out, and Nancy Drew, with her predictable plots and annoying perfection, is not nearly so compelling.

"Put it this way," said the 28-year veteran public school teacher. "If you had your choice between Nancy Drew and Harry Potter, which would you read?"

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