Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nancy Drew Gets Her Due (Zombies Beg To Differ)

KEENE, Carolyn [Mildred Wirt Benson],
The Hidden Staircase.
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1930.
(All Images Courtesy Of University Of Maryland.)

An online exhibit celebrating supersleuth Nancy Drew has transformed the intrepid, titian-haired detective from a old-time library pariah into a modern-day American Library Association (ALA) award winner. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Rare Book and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of ALA has bestowed its annual honor for "online exhibit of exceptional merit" to the University of Maryland Libraries for "Nancy Drew and Friends: Girls’ Series Books Rediscovered." That rumbling sound you hear is an army of reanimated children's librarians, rising from their graves in outrage to mount a zombie invasion of ALA's 2010 Annual Meeting.

KEENE, Carolyn [Mildred Wirt Benson],
The Clue In The Jewel Box.
New York:Grosset & Dunlap, 1943.

"The exhibition," stated Richard Noble, chair of the RBMS Exhibition Awards committee and rare books cataloger at Brown University, "is an editorial triumph, accessible and informative at many levels, with a consistency of voice that remains always somehow breezy without ever betraying the seriousness of the collecting and curatorial discipline that went into it." Mr. Noble is clearly smitten with this tribute to Miss Drew, and equally enchanted by its subject's considerable charms. But he's not really to blame. After all, his heroine has been described by novelist Bobbie Ann Mason as being: "as immaculate and self-possessed as a Miss America on tour. She is as cool as a Mata Hari and as sweet as Betty Crocker." So what's up with those Night Of The Living Dead Librarians?

KEENE, Carolyn [Mildred Wirt Benson],
The Mystery of The Ivory Charm.
New York:Grosset & Dunlap, 1936.

Well, despite the fact that Nancy Drew's mystery-solving expertise makes Sherlock Holmes look like a piker, her feats of fictional daring-do were considered by many Depression era librarians to be downright dangerous. The Nancy Drew books, and other similar series published by the Stratemyer Syndicate, were said to be the literary equivalent of Valium, inducing "mental laziness," "intellectual torpor," and even "fatal sluggishness," in unsuspecting young readers. While this state of tranked-out bliss would seem to preclude much strenuous activity, somehow these same lazy-eyed loafers were said to be single-handedly undermining decent society. As one scandalized librarian declared: "Much of the contempt for social conventions ... is due to the reading of this poisonous sort of fiction."

ALLEN, Betsy [Betty Cavanaugh],
The Clue In Blue. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1948.
Another Subversive Stratemeyer Series.


And as if figuratively destroying the best minds of a generation wasn't bad enough, Chief Librarian of the Boy Scouts, Franklin K. Mathiews seemed to believe "these cheap books" could literally cause brain damage: "I wish I could label each one of these books: 'Explosive! Guaranteed to Blow Your Boy’s Brains Out.' . . . [a]s some boys read such books, their imaginations are literally ‘blown out,’ and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion they had lost a hand or foot." And lest you think lifelong mental damage from series books was limited to males, psychologist G. Stanley Hall chimed in that the female reader of these pernicious pages will be given: "false views of [womanhood]...which will cloud her life with discontent in the future." Brain dead boys and disillusioned girls, what's next, the apocalypse?

Nancy Drew Or Dorian Gray?
The Ageless Detective As Pictured From 1930-1977.

Series books were banned in libraries as early as 1901. A 1905 Library Journal editorial urged librarians to maintain their high standards: "Shall the libraries resist the flood and stand for a better and purer literature for children, or shall they 'meet the demands of the people' by gratifying a low and lowering taste?" But publisher Edward Stratemeyer took it all in stride: "Personally it does not matter much to me...Taking them out of the library has more than tripled the sales..." And Stratemeyer had the last laugh: not only are series books like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew now commonplace in public libraries, research libraries and rare book rooms also collect this literature one labeled "substandard."

KEENE, Carolyn [Mildred Wirt Benson],
The Secret In The Old Attic.
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1944.

The ALA award winning online exhibition from the University of Maryland Libraries was created from their Rose and Joseph Pagnani collection of over 300 books from 33 different girls' series published from 1917 to 1980. The collection was donated, ironically, by a librarian, Elissa Pagnani, who earned her Masters of Library Science degree from the University of Maryland. The Katharine Kyes Leab and Daniel J. Leab American Book Prices Current Award for outstanding online exhibition will be presented on June 27, 2010, during ALA's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. If you should see reports of flesh-eating zombie librarians crashing the ceremony, remember you read it first here on Booktryst.

Previously On Booktryst:
Ohio Library Uncovers The Secret At Shadow Ranch.

Miracle Of The Two-Week Rare Book: A Nancy Drew Mystery.


  1. Fantastic! I grew up reading the 1950s to 1970s era of Nancy Drew books. I went from wanting to be Nancy Drew to wanting to be "Carolyn Keene." When I was 16, I wrote a very bad mystery (which was solved because the thief carried a maroon purse that didn't match her yellow outfit! the horror!). I have now published five books (one of which was on another banned author -- "Robert Cormier: Banned, Challenged, and Censored"). I am on the cusp of completing two more and am about to sign a contract for yet two more books to be completed in 2010. My childhood best friend with whom I shared my love of Nancy Drews has since died from breast cancer. Every now and then I go to my collection and reread one for fun -- and inspiration.

  2. I just saw this comment--thanks so much. It means a lot when another writer likes one's work.

    By the way, Robert Cormier is my favorite Young Adult writer--"After The First Death" is one of my best loved books. And, of course, I loved reading Nancy Drew!


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