Nancy Drew: Then and Now

CHAPTER ONE: The Mystery of Nancy Drew and the Dusty Old Books

When I was a kid, I never read a Nancy Drew mystery.  It was not because I didn’t have the books available – an older cousin had the books. I was just never interested in them.

While de-cluttering an old bookcase, I came across severalold Nancy Drew books and decided, why not, let’s crack a couple open.  Let’s see what all my gal pals were raving about.

“Oh, pshaw!” Nancy exclaimed in vexation.

I went into this experiment thinking that Nancy Drew was going to be a silly girl running around doing silly stuff. I secretly hoped she would turn out to be a strong female character that could be inspiring.

CHAPTER TWO: Nancy Can Fix Her Own Car

I decided to start by reading the original version of The Sign of the Twisted Candles.

At least that’s the version I think I read. The copyright said 1933 and her vocabulary defiantly screamed of being from back then. I make this comment because I learned that her stories were later re-written to make Nancy more compliant with social and legal rules and the stories less violent. What fun is that?

Not expecting to enjoy the book, I was pleasantly surprised. It turned out to be an easy read and a fun oasis for me. I read it from cover to cover in no time.  Now keep in mind, I get bored real fast with books. I have a bunch of partially read ones hanging around my house. Nancy entranced me! I can’t explain exactly how. Maybe it was the fun vocabulary: She drove a roaster. She measures mileage in rods. (Yes I Googled it: 1 rod=5.5 yards). She called her best friends chums. That was possibly part of it, but I think the main reason was that she was a very independent self-confident young woman who bucked the societal rules of the time.  Oh, and the stories were silly fun.

 CHAPTER THREE: Art and Nancy Drew Books

In my found Nancy Drew book stash, there was an older older version. The cover had a cloth like feel to it and a fully illustrated dust jacket. Here is the Nancy people think of with her magnifying glass hunting bad guys, brave, yet still stylish! Here is it compared to an updated version.

 The art didn’t stop with the covers. There were illustrations in the beginning of the books and occasionally during the story.As you can see, the artist depicted Nancy Drew just as the stories did, braveand daring: Oh, look, there is her roadster!


 CHAPTER FOUR: The Tale of the Literary Ghost

How did a young woman in the 1930s, just barely after women were granted the right to vote, be so sassy and smart? Had did she become a role model for several generations of girls?

Spoiler Alert: The author name on all Nancy Drew books from the beginning to now is Carolyn Keene who doesn’t exist. The original series was written by eight different ghostwriters, three of them were men.

The idea of Nancy Drew came from a man named Edward Stratemeyer. He was a publishing genius. His story is rather fascinating.  He started writing and self-publishing as a kid, selling his homemade books on the street, then in his twenties began to sell more stories while working full time.  His imagination overflowed with story ideas and he would make them up on the spot to entertain his young daughters. He learned the science behind serial writing and took it to the next level when he created the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1905.

He developed a system where he no longer had to write the full stories himself. He would come up with the plot that he turned into a basic outline. He then hand picked and trained ghostwriters to his style and gave them the outlines. They would complete the story with his offering suggestions.They would be paid once. He kept the profits, believing the story came from him and still belonged to him. He expected the ghost writers to be loyal to this process and never tell anyone outside the Syndicate.

 One of his early successes was with The Hardy Boys series. Leslie McFarlane was the ghostwriter working from Stratemeyer’s outlines under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon. The series was an instant hit. (I have never read any of those books. Oh, dear, I feel another rabbit hole opening up!) Stratemeyer was behind many of the very popular children’s book series of the time; Tom Swift, The Bobbsey Twins, Outdoor Girls, along with the Hardy Boys.

 He kept close to his target audience, listening to what they enjoyed and wanted to hear about. That is how he learned that sisters and girls were reading mystery and adventure books targeted for boys. He saw there was a niche to be filled. Enter Nancy Drew.

Back to that original thought: Why was Nancy Drew so bold and brash for a 1930s gal? Part of that might have been due to the first ghostwriter of the series, Mildred Benson.

Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson began writing and selling her stories when she was a young teen in Iowa. She was a diving champion. She was the first to graduate with a Master’s Degree in Journalism at the University of Iowa. She was an aggressive reporter. And I bet she could fix her own car engine.  Hmm, who does that sound like? A certain teen girl mystery sleuth?  All of Mildred’s life experiences and her personality appealed to Stratemeyer. He hired her in 1926 for one series, before asking her to write the Nancy Drew stories. She would goon to write 23 total.

 As was the process, Stratemeyer put together outlines forthe first five books and handed them over to Mildred to write.  He informed her he wanted these stories to be full of adventure. She was paid 125 dollars, which would be about $1,791.60 in today’s dollars, or 10 dollars a page. Today’s ghostwriters get about $75 a page or about 13-15 thousand dollars for a novel.  Though it sounds like she was underpaid, you have to remember this offer came right at the time of the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression was starting. Everyone was lucky to have a job!

Just like today’s hired ghostwriters, once she completed the manuscript and handed it over, she gave away all rights to the book and characters, and understood her name would never be credited for her creative work. I am glad for her that her name connected with this series was not lost.That today we can look back and know she wrote those books. My first thought was, how sad for her and her family that they would never reap the financial benefits of the millions of books sold. Then l looked deeper into her biography. Her career included writing 130 books: several series under her own name. One was the Penny Parker series that you can download for less than a dollar (and yes, I did, and there goes entry into yet ANOTHER rabbit hole!)  Right away you find out the main character is a pretty blonde teen-aged girl who lost her mother young, is being raised by her housekeeper, and has a successful father. Hmm, who does that sound like?? It seems Mildred went on to live her own adventures,traveling the world, married a few times, and continued to work into her advanced years.

There were eight original ghostwriters including men. I happened to have the books written by Walter Karig (#8,9,10) in my found collection. I decided to read them and see if I could tell the gender of the author. I really couldn’t. He stuck to the formula (with help from theStratemeyer sisters) and kept to her personality profile, voice, and behavior.

The first Nancy Drew books were; “The Secret of the Old Clock”, “The Hidden Staircase” and “The Bungalow Mystery” debuting in 1930.  In my collection I only have one: “The Bungalow Mystery” and it happened to be the re-written version in 1960.

Back Covers of Nancy Drew Book

 Unfortunately Edward Stratemeyer passed away soon after thedebut without seeing how popular his idea became.

After their father’s death, his daughters Harriet and Edna wanted to sell the Syndicate.  Remember, this was the Great Depression, which translates to there were no buyers. The sisters had to dive in and run it themselves. Being the head of a business was a bit daring for women in the 1930s, but they were raised by a creative man and witnessed his entrepreneurial drive.

Harriet had four children, so she had to learn to be a CEO and juggle her family responsibilities. Working wives were discouraged at that time because there was barely enough jobs for men, and the common belief was that wives should not be taking up any jobs other husbands could have. She also took criticism because she was not a stay at home mom. Oh, and on top of all that, she would write many Nancy Drew books herself.

 From the framework of strong women and supportive men, the fictional Nancy Drew got her start. She was an independent girl very much ahead of her time, kicking butt, breaking rules and laws to get what she needed to solve her mysteries. I can just imagine the girls back then who didn’t have the same courage or longed to have the same independence, living vicariously through her. She was an original example of Girl Power!

 CHAPTER FIVE: The Tale of the Mysterious Vocabulary

As I mentioned before, the original Nancy Drew books are full of old fashion and fun vocabulary and trivia. Children today would have no idea what a “wired telephone” is or why Nancy needed “operator assistance”, or why she had to drive distances to find a phone to call for help. There are tearooms and tons of hot cocoa and cakes consumed.

If you or your child is reading the original versions, make them aware that there will be some culturally insensitive wording in some of the books. Even though it will make you cringe, remind your child of the timeframe the book was written in and how it was common language then. This can turn into a history lesson on how far Americans have come with regards to cultural sensitivities and avoidance of offensive stereotypes and language.  I did read a couple re-written versions and the offensive wording and language styles were removed, so it would be safe to let your child read the versions from 1959/1960 forward.

Sadly, a great deal of the longer sentence structure and the wonderful old fashion words for objects and place descriptions have been removed from the updated books. Though I have to confess, they did keep in a bit of violence and suspense that surprised me. What I did find in the very first books and those newer versions I have read so far, they keep true to Nancy and her father’s personalities.  They treat everyone with respect and kindness no matter their socio-economic background, race, or cultural background.

  “She outlined her plan to help Joanne Byrd. Her father consented enthusiastically, proud as always of Nancy’s desire toassist others.” Page 42 The Secret of Red Gate Farm.

What was a fun surprise, was the gender bending description of her best friend George in a 1933 version Nancy’s Mysterious Letter.

CHAPTER SIX: Nancy Drew Gets a Cell Phone

In a few references I have read, the later attempts (1970s) to modernize Nancy Drew did not go well, so I avoided looking at those.  I instead read some of the 1960s rewrites of the books I already had, before purchasing the latest Nancy Drew books.


As soon as you open both books- 1932 versus 1968, you can see the style difference. In the newer version they quickly got to the plot. In the older version there was more of a build up of the mood in the scene. The more obvious changes were to modernize her car from that wonderful wording of roaster to convertible.  I am in the process of reading the 1968 version to see how much they really changed the story. Wonder if they wrote out the description of George mentioned above?

Let us jump ahead to the “Now” Nancy:

Both of the series in the picture above were written in the first person. You hear what Nancy is thinking and I am not a fan of that. (The modern Hardy Boys books are written the same way.) Part of the fun of the old books, was that you were not brought into everything she was thinking. She would put two and two together and if you were paying close attention, you may have come to the same conclusion. The modern versions have turned Nancy into someone who has doubts and is a bit clumsy as she goes about solving her mysteries. The other part that annoyed me was how they made Nancy into a bit of a nervous girl who can scare easy.

What I did like about the modern versions, is that Nancy’s best friends are still there, and they have been given bigger roles in her sleuthing.  They have been written as complete personalities that contribute unique talents.  The stories also retain a bit of violence,danger, and suspense. To be honest, I was surprised at that. What children will also like about the new stories is how she and her friends depend a great deal on modern technology to help them solve their mysteries.

I did find it a tad annoying that they are sticking to the fake name of “Carolyn Keene” as the author. I guess they feel paying ghostwriters is still the way to go.  They did give credit to the real illustrator. Why not the real author? Also, the covers of the series for older girls, tend to show an innocent younger version of the character and in one case, did not portray the “house” as described in the book.  Details like that tend to annoy me.  Would I recommend the newer versions to my young friends and family? Sure! They are still fun and are about adventurous and smart girls.

 CHAPTER SEVEN: Nancy Drew : Tried and True

I never imagined when I cleaned off my old shelf of books I would fall into this rabbit hole!

I discovered what made Nancy Drew a fun read to my childhood friends. I enjoyed reading wonderful old fashion terms for items and descriptions of scenes, something I would love to see now in children’s literature.  The character Nancy Drew is more than light entertainment, “she” is part of our cultural history.

What surprised me the most? That her origins started with a male author and businessman. This fact made me think of the research I did forthe article Wonder Woman: Then and Now. Wonder Woman was also created by a man. What ties both of these men together, is that they were influenced by the fierce women around them and their time in history-when women were fighting to get the right to vote. And, they allowed the strong women around them to have a hand in shaping their creations.  A practice not common for those times.

This has been a fun ride meeting Nancy Drew!

Later gators!


Further Reading:

 “Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her” by Melanie Rehak :2005.

This book goes very deep into the lives of the creators and the writers, including the current events and their influence on them.  I found it very enlightening not only about the people involved in the creation of the series, but also the historical look into the early publishing and serial writing process.

“Clues for Real Life: The Classic Wit and Wisdom of Nancy Drew” from Simon and Shuster and Meredith Books, compiled by Jennifer Fisher:2007

This is a gift book for the true Nancy Drew fans. Its an attractive book filled with images from the old books, has a nice color page spread of all the original covers, and has a lot of fun trivia.

This article is copyright © Atwood/N.A.M. 2018. All content and images are copyrighted unless otherwise noted. Please do not use in any form without request of author. Links to our articles, short quotes with credit, and associated links are allowed.

2 thoughts on “Nancy Drew: Then and Now

  1. info

    Tandy drew the inside sketches for the first 26 volumes of the series as well as painting the covers of the first 26 volumes with the exception of volume 11 – the cover artist for volume 11 is unknown. Tandy read each text before he began sketching, so his early covers were closely connected to specific scenes in the plots. He also hand-painted the cover lettering and designed the original Nancy Drew logo: a silhouette of Nancy bending slightly and looking at the ground through a quizzing glass .

    1. Maplewood Press Post author

      Thank you for the information. You prompted me to look him up: his full name is Russel H. Tandy. I am a huge fan of illustrators and their art, it is nice to now have a name to go with the pictures and the logo.


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