Nancy Drew and Book History 103: Some Speculations on Kelsey McKinney’s Mystery

51fumcek9jl-_sx314_bo1204203200_Kelsey McKinney wrote a fabulous piece that’s on right now (via Lenny) about the one and only–or rather, many and proliferating–Nancy Drew(s). Her first-person story of encountering one Nancy Drew in a 1930s edition of The Hidden Staircase and then revised, toned-down Drew in a later edition (my guess is this 2007 version, based on the cover description) is illuminating and, for me, completely relatable: when I picked up a copy of Ramona the Pest a few years ago, I was very displeased to find the illustrations updated to give Ramona and Beezus big eyes and shiny hair.




Left: 1968, Louis Darling. I particularly enjoy the untied shoelaces.
Right: mid-2000s, Tracy Dockeray. With butterflies as stars and doe-eyes added, because….who knows why.
(Note: the illustrations were updated again in 2013 by Jacqueline Rogers.)


So, though my personal affinity for Nancy Drew was never more than casual: I get it.

A few things I want to point out about the article, though. One, in trying to make sense of the tonal shift in Nancy Drew’s character, McKinney throws out some pretty broad generalizations about cultural shifts in particular decades. Two, I want to make some tweaks to the narrative she presents of Nancy Drew’s evolution. Of the 1930s Nancy Drew, McKinney writes:

Wirt was writing just on the heels of the Roaring 20s, and she invented a heroine to match. Wirt’s Nancy Drew was assertive, aggressive, and willing to contradict any adult who kept her from solving mysteries. Through the character, Wirt was doing what all young American women in the 1930s were trying to do: bridge Victorian and modern sensibilities about what a girl (and a woman) could be. In her books, Nancy drove a car; she existed in a public sphere. Women in the First World War had directed movies, flown airplanes, and been newspaper reporters. Nancy Drew, a self-sufficient girl detective, was a book those modern women could buy proudly for their daughters.

Of the late-1950s revision, she writes:

But if Wirt wrote a Nancy Drew of and for the women of the 1930s, Adams wrote her Nancy for the 1950s, when post-war American culture encouraged docility, sweetness, and deference. When Nancy Drew debuted in 1930, 46 percent of US college students were women. By the time she was rewritten in 1959, women made up only 38 percent of college students. The post-war prosperity sent the 1950s woman out of the office place and back into domesticity, and Nancy Drew went with her.

To the first point: McKinney isn’t wrong. Studies show that post-WWII American culture had a sort of obsession with normalizing heterosexual nuclear families with women as homemakers. But I want to add some context to her statistics here a bit. The G. I. Bill had a tremendous impact on those college attendance statistics; because of it, young men who would have been unable to afford college in decades past enrolled—-but there was no complementary measure for the women who were their peers on the lower socio-economic rungs. While this, plus the unprecedented single-family home loans offered to veterans through the bill, did result in women being herded into homes as wives and mothers, many of them were women who would have otherwise been occupying low-wage jobs in other, richer people’s homes, not the high-powered careers that seem to be implied here. Further, studies have also shown that the backlash to the attempts to quash the Rosie the Riveter mentality exploited by the federal government during wartime was pretty swift; after all, 1959 only barely precedes the rise in a mainstream, middle-class narrative of second-wave feminism (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out four short years later).

To the second point: true, Nancy Drew was indeed a Stratemeyer creation, and as was often his practice for the series he published, he hired a ghostwriter to turn his basic idea and outlines into full stories. However, Stratemeyer died soon after Nancy Drew when on the market in 1930, which means that Harriet Adams had creative control over the character not only in 1959, but for almost her entire existence. A shift in power from Wirt to Adams can’t be the culprit here, because that’s just not how Wirt’s employment as a ghostwriter worked.

My best guess is that the rewrite of Nancy has to do with what was happening in American publishing in general. 1930 was indeed right on the heels of the roaring 20s, but it was also right on the heels of a renaissance in American publishing unlike any other since the Civil War. After 150 years of industry dominance by a handful of family-owned houses (think Harper and Brothers), the mid-1920s and years directly following saw an explosion in new startups headed by young college graduates–and though these were often officially headed by young men, the crucial roles played by women in these startups were something of an open secret (think Viking, Random House). These houses sought to take chances on new, modern writers: female protagonists who drove cars and “exist[ed] in the public sphere” were practically their mascot.

Stratemeyer, meanwhile, was an independent, genre-specific publisher, who operated on the fringes of this movement, but his Nancy Drew fit right in—-it’s little wonder that Grosset and Dunlap leaped at a partnership with his syndicate to distribute her books.

By 1959, this period of high innovation in the large publishers was coming to a close. The industry was starting to condense into fewer, larger companies as publishing houses began to acquire one another. Meanwhile, however, mass-market paperbacks were on the rise—-and these publishers (like Gold Medal), used a development process much more similar to Stratemeyer’s than the prestigious presses of the 1920s: outline some stories, find some writers to work under pseudonyms, and churn them out, assembly-line style. Thus, in 1959, the market was far more saturated with ghostwritten, assembly-line books than it had been in 1930—-and mystery books in particular. (Indeed, by 1970, Adams sought to move Nancy Drew herself to paperback format).

So when Adams was tasked with updating the Nancy Drew series, it was within this new publishing climate—-which meant that, along with excising the racism and outdated idioms, Adams would need to create a protagonist that represented high-school-agers in the late 1950s and early 1960s in order to continue to have a niche (thus the prom date as the main occupation and detective work on the side, instead of being hired as a detective by an adult woman).

For me, the shame isn’t that publishers in 1959 realized that the Nancy Drew books would be better if they were less racist. It’s more that they have tried to pretend that the 1959 Drew is the only one that exists. The earlier versions aren’t valued in the way they should be—-as artifacts key to the development of a cultural icon. Like the 1968 version of Ramona the Pest, the 1930s Nancy Drew has been effectively thrown out, and you’ll only find her in used book sales.


On Roald Dahl.

Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday (or would-have been-birthday—-why do we celebrate these? Surely there is some other more meaningful anniversary for Mr. Dahl we could celebrate other than the one where he entered the world he is no longer in? Anyway.)  and the internet had some thoughts, some better than others.

The ones in the BBC article, “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” (is there any other side?) by Hephzibah Anderson were a mixed bag. The article description looked fantastic,

Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.

and the article content eventually lives up to it. But first 3/4 of the article adopts an unfortunate, though common (and as writer, really tempting!) strategy: it spends most of its words arguing against itself, before finally becoming convinced of its own thesis in the final paragraph. It’s supposed to seem Socratic, and it feels that way while it’s being written. The result, however, is almost always a vaguely confusing reading experience, and this is especially true in the BBC article’s case.

The worst is the stuff that’s just…..inaccurate, like the generalizations that “teachers tend to be villainous” in Dahl’s books and “fail to impart any real wisdom”—-sure, Matilda has the Trunchbull, but what about Miss Honey? She’s not brave, but she shows Matilda that life can sometimes be different, that it’s possible to carve out spaces of softness and affection despite external forces that push the opposite; what’s wiser than that?—-and, even worse, “female characters tend to be either warm or wicked and nothing in between”—-again, Matilda herself would so often have been a boy in the hands of another writer, and it means a lot that she wasn’t; but really there are quite many counterexamples (off the top of my head, Miss Spider, the Queen, Mrs. Fox).

we haven’t even TALKED about Quentin Blake’s illustrations. let’s do it now: I ❤ Quentin Blake. ok done.

But suggesting that Dahl’s legacy is morally dicey, and characterizing his commercial success as a not-entirely-positive oddity, strikes me as an unfair place to start talking about Dahl, even if that’s not where the discussion ends up. Anderson attributes Dahl’s darkness to his own deeply unpleasant childhood, reportedly teeming with precisely the kind of trauma he wrote about in his books: abuse, abandonment, and anti-sociality. Yet, strangely, though the article uses this biographical information to explain how Dahl got to be “unpleasant” person he was, it doesn’t take the obvious next step, which is to connect it to the life experience of his audience, until much later, and never explicitly.

Nancy Ekholm Berkert was pretty cool too

Because childhood is often dark as hell: Dahl was not alone in his. Writing books for children that express dark childhoods, and reading books about dark childhoods, isn’t a sign that someone is warped and antisocial, but just the opposite: it’s an attempt at enfranchisement, at connecting.

We here at Dr. V’s Children’s Book List dot com enterprises heap praise on books about being kind, about rainbows and how wonderful things often are. But not everything is wonderful, or rainbows, all the time, and we need books for our darker days, too. We need books for the abandoned, abused, and ostracized: they deserve to imagine themselves floating above the city on a giant peach, or teaming up with a friendly giant and making life better for both of them, or encountering a truly kind person amidst the disappointing mess and using their gifts of the mind to create their own families.roald_dahls_bfg_movie-642-380

Those at the BBC are likely to have a different relationship with Dahl than an American, and indeed, I can’t speak to some of Dahl’s less-ubiquitous works, such as The Witches, mentioned in the article. Anderson’s point about racism in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dahl’s own anti-Semitism is an important one (and an angle I wish we saw more of in recaps of the careers of, say, Dr. Seuss). But balanced against the many, many paragraphs of reductive plot summaries and repudiations, only a few of which were even accurate, Anderson’s excellent final paragraph gets buried:

But it’s also worth recalling this: though childlike has come to refer to positive qualities associated with children, at its most basic, it simply means resembling a child. And as the magnificent Maurice Sendak observed, “In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy. There’s a cruelty to childhood, there’s an anger.” If Dahl’s books contain just one message for us adults, it’s the reminder that a child’s world isn’t all sweetness and light, it contains shadows too – extravagant, scary, wickedly entertaining ones.

Which is a shame, because, for me, this is where any conversation about Roald Dahl should start, not begrudgingly conclude. Because Dahl’s books are more than a curious, perhaps mildly unfortunate, phase in children’s book history. They’re important, because being brutally honest about the darkness while still inspiring belief in light is one of the most complicated tasks a writer can take on, and Dahl did it with more cleverness than most, for an audience that is often denied the opportunity to witness it.

Berkert, you guys.

Booming Bella and Book History 102: On Loud Little Girls

Okay, so, yes, there’s that weird rhyme about girls are sugar and spice and everything nice while boys are frogs and snakes or whatever, which would be rude if it made any sense. But children’s literature in general isn’t too terribly unfriendly to loud little girls (loud little white girls, anyway; that’s another post). We have Ramona Quimby (ahem), Junie B. Jones, Pippi Longstocking, hell, even Little Women killed off docile little Beth instead of everyone’s favorite, Jo—-and there are so many more (would love to add to this list in a separate post: leave a comment here or on Facebook if you have one!). Misbehaving little girls are some of our favorite underdogs, and we should never underestimate the American middle-class loyalty to a good underdog: we don’t love people who do everything right and use the correct fork; we love those who struggle, and who toss the stupid forks aside and go their own way.

Yet despite the fact that our favorite little girls in books are those who make trouble, we are still really weird about how little girls should look and behave in real life: social media teems with images of their poor teeny newborn heads weighed down with giant bows; frilly, fragile dresses fill store aisles; images of tranquil sunsets with captions about daughters and mothers being best friends circulate on Facebook. And, in real life, high-energy little girls—-little girls that are more spice than sugar, with loud voices and dirty faces and a tendency to shove—-have far fewer fans than Junie B. (See, for example, 2014’s insights about “bossy.”)

This conundrum raises a central question for some scholars of popular or mainstream fiction (and by “some scholars” I guess I mostly mean me, a year ago): why do we so often love books that champion certain anti-authority behaviors, even as we continue to uphold the very authorities our beloved heroes rebel against? I mean, culture is just folks doing stuff, right? If we love stories about loud, defiant, sassy little girls so much, why don’t we love actual loud, defiant, sassy little girls more?

Let’s start with one such book, and see what we can figure out:

9780399242779Booming Bella, by Carol Ann Williams and Tatjana Mai-Wyss (illust.). Putnam, 2008.

Dr. V’s take:

Bella has very good intentions and a very, very loud voice. She doesn’t mean to be rude when she leaps over other children’s heads to the front of the line; she’s just excited and she forgets her manners. She doesn’t mean to interrupt her teachers and fellow pupils; she just gets really engrossed in the subject matter and can’t contain herself.

Bella’s character is extremely sympathetic, and somehow seems three-dimensional despite the story’s concision. I liked Bella! I felt for her teacher, and the students who were annoyed by her—-good lord, who among us who have spent time with 8-ish-year-old kids hasn’t been driven out of our minds by their shoutyness?—-but I liked Bella all the same. I understood why the other kids felt she was “ruining” their trip to the museum, but I still wanted to reach into the pages and give her a hug when they said as much to her—-Tatjana Mai-Wyss’s illustrations of broken-spirited Bella are beautifully heartbreaking—-and say, “It’s ok. I understand. It’s good to be excited, and I like you the way you are.”

I so looked forward to her big redemptive moment, which was sure to come, right?

Well, sort of. The redemptive moment definitely comes, but it’s a pretty significant letdown. You see, Bella is so distraught she gets on the wrong bus. When she realizes this, she…yells that she’s on the wrong bus. With her loud voice. And this is good, I guess? Yay, Bella? We like you now that you felt terrible about yourself all through the book but saved yourself from a personal inconvenience? ….Oh.

You see, Booming Bella can make us sympathize with a loud, kind of obnoxious, little girl. It can endear her to us, because we have had lots of practice loving on loud fictional little girls. But in the end, it just doesn’t know what to do with her; to it’s credit, it doesn’t try to silence Bella, but it also can’t quite make her loudness okay in a way that rings true. Because by the end of our beloved loud girls’ stories we tend to see them married to Almanzo Wilder, or quieter in manner if not in spirit (Anne Shirley, anyone?).

It’s possible that we actually don’t like loud little girls—-we just like little girls for whom it was difficult to learn to be quiet.

But what would happen if Bella just decided she didn’t give a damn about the volume of her voice? What if, instead, the other kids learned from her about how to get hype about museums? What if the teacher and tour guide learned how to appreciate a little girl who is pumped about learning about science and art?  What if, in the end, Bella learned some combination of the value of consideration for others’ ears and also the power of a well-placed fuck you? (The basic sentiment. Don’t swear in children’s books.)

If we must include morals in every single children’s story—-and it’s not a terrible idea, since the little buggers are going to learn from stories anyway even if we’re not thoughtful about what we want the lessons to be—-that would be a new one. I wouldn’t mind seeing someone give it a try.

Busy-Busy Little Chick: A Response to that Slate Article from a Million Years Ago

I know that, in internet-land, waiting almost three weeks to respond to an article is basically like bringing a horse and buggy to a drag race, but, I both loved this article and also (sort of) have a life, so, the timeline is what it is.

Rumaan Alam loves The Snowy Day for many of the same reasons I love it. More than an ode to an old fave, however, his article is specifically a call for writers and publishers not to forget about what makes The Snowy Day so great, and not to forget to continue to aspire to what Keats’s book achieved in 1962. From the article:

Wishing there were more children’s books like The Snowy Day is a bit like wishing there were more grownup books like Anna Karenina. There are only so many masterpieces out there. But when I look at the library we’ve built for our kids, I do wish for more books for children that followed Keats’ lead, books that use children who look like mine to capture the magic in the mundane, as the best books for children do. Because what I’ve learned—and what I hear often from other parents of children of color—is that all too often the books that do contain kids who look like mine are, alas, not that fun to read.

(emphasis mine)

Here, Alam really smartly brings together the greatness of The Snowy Day with the issues I found with The Book Itch: even very well-done books about nonwhite life and culture can end up feeling like literary broccoli—-good for you, but not that satisfying. And there are consequences, too, to offering an array of stories to white kids but mostly broccoli to nonwhite kids, as Alam states:

It’s imperative to inculcate self-esteem and say, in no uncertain terms, that black is, indeed, beautiful. But these are books that are more concerned with reality, a state in which children only sometimes dwell. Must every book featuring black faces force our children to confront the tortures of our past and the troubles of our present? These are important things that our black and brown children must learn—but they must also learn the pleasure of reading a story in the relaxed, quiet moments before bed, reading not to learn but to feel safe, feel loved, laugh, wonder. That’s a fundamental privilege of childhood and should not be reserved for only one set of children.

It’s not just that we need more The Snowy Day because The Snowy Day is great. We need more The Snowy Day because The Snowy Day is important.

The whole article is well worth reading—-I’m loving Slate‘s August “pop-up blog” of children’s book reviews in general—-and I have nothing to add or argue with.

But I do have a book!

Busy-Busy Little Chick, by Janice Harrington; illust. Brian Pinkney. Farrar, 2013. 9780374347468

Dr. V’s take: Busy-Busy Little Chick, by Janice Harrington, answers Alam’s call for books that celebrate blackness and black culture with imagination and warmth. In it, Harrington adapts a Central African folktale with the help of gorgeous impressionist illustrations by Brian Pinkney. The protagonists are a mother hen and her chicks, rather than people, but Harrington’s is a story whose beauty is, like Alam says of The Snowy Day, inextricable from its source material.

The story has a lilting, slant-rhyming cadence, featuring a handful of Lonkundo words, that’s fun to read and fun to listen to. Even the moral of Busy-Busy Little Chick feels like more than broccoli. Its central character—-the busy-busy little chick—-makes his own comfort and happiness through both work and play, yet his story isn’t about some gross bootstrap concept of success or upward mobility. Rather, it’s about how Little Chick finds joy and restfulness in not only the dream of a new, snug ilombe but the process of building it; once it’s built, he doesn’t waste time dwelling on the fact that he has it but instead gets down to chasing some “cricky-cracky crickets,” not particularly caring who comes with him or what anybody else is doing. Like Peter in The Snowy Day, Little Chick models the quiet pursuit of happiness in the small moments of life.

TL;DR: Busy-Busy Little Chick is the actual cutest book ever. And if such stories are what you seek, you could do a lot worse that Janice Harrington’s bibliography.



The Book Itch and Book History 101

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and R. Gregory Christie (illust.). CarolRhoda, 2015.  61mw2wmdjtl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Dr. V’s take:

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore  tells the fascinating story of Lewis Michaux’s bookstore of the Harlem Renaissance: the National Memorial African Bookstore.  Written by Michaux’s great-niece, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, the book continually zooms in and out from the personal to the political, showing the impact of the death of Malcolm X on black America more broadly by telling us of its impact on Michaux and his son. Paired with R. Gregory Christie’s gorgeous illustrations, and closing with an affirmation of the power of literacy, reading, and access, this book wins all the things.

Yet I can’t urge you to run out and check it out for your children immediately, because, frankly, it sucks to read to a little kid. Each page has multiple dense paragraphs that are fatiguing to read aloud, with long winding sentences that are perfectly lovely yet unlikely to hold the attention of a wee one. Meanwhile, the prose is pitch-perfect for older kids (and, heck, adults), but the picture-book format is likely to throw off a ten-year-old who considers themselves to have outgrown the genre.

This is an issue of that pertains to the difference between the book and the text, and the material signifiers that unconsciously shape what we read (and read to people).

Excuse me for a moment….

[opens closet]

[digs in the back]

[retrieves Professor Hat]


Okay, now I’m ready.

As a really smart mentor of mine always says, the text is not the book.

The book is strictly material. It’s covers, paper, and glue. It has to be shipped and shelved; it has to be distributed; its materials have to be bought and then sold at a profit. There are a million decisions that go into making the book: what shape should it be? Should it be paper or a board book? Which of the 427,865 (approximately) kinds of paper should we use? How much does each cost, and would we make that money back? What about typeface—-if we make the font smaller, can we get away with one or two fewer pages per book, which will then equate to at least thousands of pages saved, or, if we’re lucky, a million?

The text is what the book means to you, the person who bought the book. It’s what the the words say, and whether they speak to you. It’s telling a good story. It’s what it teaches, or chooses not to teach. It’s what writers agonize over creating. But text isn’t only the hippy-dippy feelings-y stuff: it’s also what editors are paid to standardize; what has to fit into certain shapes and formats in order to see the light of day; what gets copyrighted and/or trademarked (which we’ll talk about later).


When it comes to children’s books, we can see how books and text work together (or against each other) even more clearly than books for adults. The differences among books for adults, though numerous and proliferating enough that I could spend thousands of words detailing them, are far more subtle than those among books for children in terms of their construction, size, shape, etc.



Cool. So now you know that. Who gives a shit?

Well, maybe you, maybe not. What might prompt someone to be interested in considering the books they read their kids as both material objects and immaterial catalysts for bonding would be any of the following: (1) you might know what you do and don’t like, but do you know why? Maybe you’re curious? No? Well, (2) knowledgeable consumers are discriminating consumers. The more you know about how books are made and who makes them, the better you’re able to tell at a glance what’s not going to be your thing, so you don’t have that moment where you’re in the middle of reading a new library selection to your child and OOPS HONEY JUST NOTICED THIS IS LITERALLY PROPAGANDA LEMME JUST CLOSE THAT HOW ABOUT WE WATCH TV INSTEAD. Not a thing that happens to you? Ok, so (3) knowing how books are selected, and why/how they get published has a way of bumping one off of autopilot: you don’t have to read certain stuff because it won an award, or  because it’s on a particular shelf at the library, or by a particular author. You don’t! Because you know that for a book to actually make it on your shelf it had to go through a winding process fraught with potential pitfalls, and that good stories are far more numerous than books. And if none of that does it for you, it’s possible that (4) you’re just weird and a nerd (guilty).

But in the case of The Book Itch, we also have (5), wherein we’re not really sure what to do with a work whose text is in a format we’re not trained to recognize as “for” us. The text of The Book Itch is interesting, moving, and masterfully concise. But its book—-those beautiful pictures, the 8 x 11 size, its distribution by a publisher of educational books for children—-leads us to presume a very specific audience for it.

But why?

Why don’t adults read stories with beautiful pictures? Why is it that, once we turn 10 or 12 or so, we feel that our books should be more like 5 x 8 inches, instead of letter or legal size?

The answer is: because we’ve spent the last hundreds+ years being trained about what a book looks like, and how to use things like cover size, construction, and color to distinguish genres from each other.

Unfortunately, that means a book like The Book Itch, whose book tells us it’s a read-aloud for little kids but whose text is much more for early readers on up, won’t get the audience it deserves.

It might be worth unlearning—-or at least becoming aware of—-some of this training, no? If only to resist the ways it limits us.