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Family Fun: Library celebrates Nancy Drew’s 91st birthday by investigating her ageless appeal

Nancy Drew is turning 91 on Wednesday. That’s the anniversary of the publication of the first Nancy Drew book, “The Secret of the Old Clock.” To celebrate, the Spokane County Library District is hosting “The Mystery of Nancy Drew,” a lecture by historian Leslie Goddard.

“Even though her books were first published in the ’30s, we still have kids who are constantly checking them out,” librarian Corinne Wilson said.

“When Nancy Drew first came out, there had not been a heroine who was having adventures herself instead of tagging along behind,” Wilson said. “The little girls just loved her.”

The character was created by Edward Stratemeyer as the female answer to the Hardy Boys series, also published by his Stratemeyer Syndicate – along with the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Dana Girls and many others.

“He should be remembered for being one of the most successful inventors of characters for kids books ever,” Goddard said.

The syndicate would come up with outlines for the stories and hire ghostwriters, publishing the Nancy Drew Mystery Series under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Eventually, 175 books were published in the original series from 1930 to 2003, with dozens more in spinoff collections.

“It’s pretty remarkable that one character can be so appealing across so many decades,” Goddard said.

One measure of Nancy Drew’s perennial popularity: In 2002, “The Secret of the Old Clock” sold more than 150,000 copies – more than 70 years after it was first published.

Goddard said Nancy Drew’s enduring appeal “has to do with the uniqueness of the character itself.”

She’s good at solving mysteries, she’s beautiful, she’s ladylike, “but she also lives in this world where she has utter freedom,” Goddard said.

She’s finished high school and has no imminent plans for college, work or marriage. Her wealthy father has given her a blue convertible, so she can go wherever she wants. And, they have a housekeeper, so she has no household duties.

For the target audience of 8- to 12-year-olds, “what a fabulous way to envision yourself,” Goddard said.

“You’re kind of starting to grow up, you want to be your own person, but you still have a lot of restrictions – Nancy Drew has none of those,” she said. “You’re still learning, you’re still discovering your talents – Nancy Drew is talented at everything.”

Goddard said she often talks with women in their 50s, 60s or 80s who have a lot of nostalgia for the books.

“We don’t necessarily remember the plots, the plots can be a little bit kooky … but we remember her best friends George and Bess, and we remember her blue convertible and her boyfriend, Ned. Those things are really vivid in readers’ minds years and years later.”

As an adult, Goddard sees the formula to the books. But as a kid, they were addictive – she guesses she read about 75 of them. “It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with books and reading – that was an enormous gift to my whole life.”

Nancy Drew has evolved over the decades, whether it’s in the clothes that she wears in the cover illustrations or the gadgets that she uses while sleuthing. And, she’s appeared in movies, TV shows and video games.

But, Goddard said, “as much as times have changed since 1930, we haven’t lost the fact that we look for, and we love, women who are bold and fearless and smart.”

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