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Nancy Drew, the intrepid teen sleuth who, until Harry Potter, reigned as the most read and
recognizable book series star, turned ninety years old in 2020, and although beloved and vividly
remembered by generations of readers, her reputation with educators and librarians is a
checkered one. Her daring and confidence in solving mysteries enthralled and inspired the most
reluctant readers (dozens of adult women mystery writers cite her as their role model) just as it
once outraged censorious librarians.
Initially, the America Library Association, established in 1876, did not focus on children’s
reading and many public libraries were not even open to those under 12. Even in the early 20 th c,
when progressive library administrators began to look to reading as the key to molding children
into responsible citizens, they encouraged only what they regarded as the most character-
building and morally uplifting fare rather than the pulp sensation dime novels that attracted
youngsters in popular culture. Many mass-market series books emerging just then created a new
challenge, for although they often looked quite innocuous in their depiction of groups of young
people engaging in respectable activities, they were poorly written in an “assembly line manner”
and marketed as a commodity rather than as literature.
Then in the 1920s came the mystery and adventure stories, with their self-reliant heroes and
heroines, improbably, but attractively free of adult influence and control—particularly the titles
in the prolific Stratemeyer Syndicate; The Hardy Boys, The Rover Boys, Tom Swift, and most
the popular, Nancy Drew. As popular as these 50 cent editions became during the depression and
war years, most school and public libraries were loath to stock juvenile series novels—even
though up to 80% of books read by children fitted into this category.
The shockingly independent sixteen-year-old Nancy Drew, in particular, represented a decidedly
unfeminine propensity toward unchaperoned freedom in thought and action. One librarian
suggested in a 1934 article that school and public libraries soundly “rout” such children’s series
from their collections. The stories would not only induce “excitability” in young readers, she
argued, but also encourage free thought and engender disrespect for their elders. Incongruously,
series fiction could induce laziness and “sluggish” thinking.
Until the 1960s, most librarians still regarded series books at best, as poorly written trash and a
waste of library monies. The arguments weakened with the advent of TV and later, video games,
when the debate over what kind of books libraries should promote for children gave way to the
promotion of reading for readings’ sake.
At the turn of the new century, the article, If they Read Nancy Drew, so What? argued, “In [the
librarian’s] cultural battle they have identified the wrong enemy. Rhetoric to the contrary, series
books do not enfeeble readers or render them unfit for reading anything else…Series books can
be seen as allies in the goal of making readers.” Thus, Nancy Drew’s reputation with librarians
says much about the evolving vision of what the public library itself represents—access not only
to the best, but to the most popular reading fare.
Please come and enjoy a display of Nancy Drew’s colorful history at the Northside Library