04.27.10

The Books Powerful Women Love

On the 80th anniversary of the Nancy Drew series, the girl detective is still going strong—without fighting zombies or hooking up. Hugh Ryan on the Nancy machine and its appeal to women like Sonia Sotomayor.

In a few days, one of America’s most beloved teens turns 80. Nancy Drew, girl detective, first appeared in print on April 28, 1930, in The Secret of the Old Clock. With her two best friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin, she tooled around River Heights in a dark blue roadster, solving crimes, exploring secret passages, and foiling bad guys.

Three hundred books, a dozen video games, five films, and two TV series later, Nancy’s still at it. These days, she drives a sky-blue hybrid and carries a cell phone, but River Heights still depends on her to prevent everything from identity theft to political assassinations. Her books don’t follow any of the hot trends in young adult fiction: Nancy fights no zombies, owns no designer clothes, and lusts after nary a vampire. Yet each new book has a print run of 25,000 and, cumulatively, the books have sold more than 200 million copies. It’s hard to imagine another cultural icon that could bring together Sonia Sotomayor and Laura Bush, both of whom cite Nancy as an inspiration.

“Ned and Nancy just hug. That’s a conscious choice. Her character was never about boys or clothes or makeup. She’s always been the smart girl who uses her head.”

What is it about this octogenarian detective that keeps girls coming back, generation after generation?

“Nancy Drew is chicken soup,” laughs Emily Lawrence, associate editor at the Aladdin imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. For the last two years, Lawrence has been the woman at the heart of the Nancy Drew machine, overseeing the current series, Nancy Drew Girl Detective. She’s in charge of keeping Nancy contemporary. To this end, the books are now written in the first person and published in trilogies, to give modern readers the sense of character growth and story line they’ve come to expect. Like another longstanding crime brand, Law & Order, they use a “ripped from the headlines” approach to modernize the stories, which include crimes set in reality-television shows and social network cyber-bullying. Lawrence attributes many of these plot advancements to the variety of writers who have written Nancy Drew over the years (spoiler alert: Carolyn Keene never existed). But Lawrence believes Nancy remains popular mostly for the ways in which she hasn’t changed.

“People know what they’re getting,” says Lawrence. “You’re visiting your old friends every time you crack open a book.” This consistency has created what Lawrence calls “megafans”: women (and some men) who are almost evangelical in their love for Nancy Drew.

Jennifer Fisher, writer and president of the Nancy Drew Sleuths Fan Club, is perhaps the queen of the megafans. For the last decade, she’s organized an annual Nancy Drew convention that has drawn upward of 100 fans from around the world. This year, to celebrate the 80th anniversary, she also put together a “Sleuths at Sea” cruise.

“Nancy Drew’s a good role model,” says Fisher. “She was always very kind and good to others—unless they were criminals.”

In a word, Nancy is wholesome, a concept that rarely equals popularity among today’s mainstream tweens. But for parents, educators, and megafans, this means being able to pass along the books—even ones they haven’t read—without worrying about the content.

Everyone agrees that part of Nancy’s continued popularity is this legacy effect. But many things, from Peter, Paul & Mary records to Mary Jane shoes, have been passed down without catching on. What makes Nancy different is that she is one of the last bastions of innocence. As young adult fiction becomes more R-rated with each passing year, Nancy remains resolutely asexual and noncommercial.

“Ned and Nancy just hug. That’s a conscious choice. Her character was never about boys or clothes or makeup. She’s always been the smart girl who uses her head,” says Lawrence, commenting on the lack of sex and product placement in the books. An effort was made in the 1980s to tart Nancy up, in a series called Nancy Drew Case Files, which Lawrence regards as a failure. “It’s a great cautionary tale,” she says. “Don’t mess with the formula.”

In Nancy-land, a girl’s first priority is justice, with friendship a close second. Ned Nickerson, Nancy’s boyfriend, is a distant third—if he’s even in a particular book at all.

This asexuality attracts a different kind of reader from, say, the girls who are picking up Private, a popular modern series about young women at boarding school. Like many titles aimed at girls, it focuses primarily on sex, clothes, and backstabbing. It’s the anti-Nancy, and its prevalence goes a long way to getting at the heart of why Nancy is still popular.

“Reading itself is an outsider activity,” says Carolyn Dyer, author of Rediscovering Nancy Drew and professor emeritus at the University of Iowa. “Girls who read, especially voraciously, are not the girls most focused on popular culture.” And this is even truer, she believes, for the girls who read Nancy Drew.

Although Dyer and Lawrence dance around the subject, they see the girls drawn to Nancy Drew as emotionally younger than their counterparts, perhaps more naïve, and markedly less interested in sex and relationships. The Nancy Drew novels are kids’ books written for kids, not for tweens who long to be teenagers or teenagers who long to be in college. For these girls, Nancy Drew is one of the few mainstream, grade-level-appropriate options out there.

“They’re going to turn to Twilight when they want one thing and they’re going to turn to Nancy when they want something else,” says Lawrence.

That something remains, as it has always been, the adventures of a young woman and her friends, fighting for justice, having fun along the way, and not giving a damn what the boys think.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Hugh Ryan is a Brooklyn-based writer and activist. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Details, The Advocate, The New York Post, and other venues. He is also writing an anarchist children's book. Visit him at hughryan.org.