'Gee, Nancy, you're so smart!'
Nancy Drew seeks a new generation of readers, but some teachers would prefer that she stay out of the classroom.
As a fourth-grader, Desiree Koh wanted to be Nancy Drew. She and a couple of her classmates started a "detective agency" and tried to crack small cases - from a thief stealing kids' lunches to finding a missing pencil. During recess, they would hide under their teacher's desk, hoping to catch the thief in action.
The cases were never solved. "But I would always think, 'What would Nancy do?' " says Koh, a lifelong fan who grew up in Singapore and now lives in Chicago.
This month, Simon & Schuster is giving the classic series a makeover. The titian-haired sleuth is now a strawberry blonde and she volunteers at an animal shelter. She's traded in her blue Mustang convertible for a hybrid car. She's Internet savvy and carries a cell- phone. The new books are now narrated in first person.
Ever since the first mystery, "The Secret of the Old Clock" debuted in 1930, generations of young girls have admired Nancy Drew's tenacity and intelligence. While the new titles don't quite measure up to the old ones - "Without a Trace" today versus the more romantic and mysterious "The Hidden Staircase" - one thing hasn't changed: Her presence in the classroom remains somewhat controversial.
Some teachers love the series because it hooks kids on reading. The young sleuth is also a good role model - she's active and smart, and her supportive boyfriend Ned Nickerson stands in the background and applauds her. But it feeds an old debate - is it better to give kids a book they love to get them excited about reading, or should class assignments involve a higher caliber of literature?
Ilene Abramson, director of children's services at the Los Angeles Public Library, says the books are a great way to get children into reading. But when it comes to book reports, teachers gravitate toward "Lemony Snicket," the Newbery-award winning "The Tale of Despereaux," and "Harry Potter."
"The Nancy Drew books are not fine literature, they're fun escapism," says Ms. Abramson. "Nancy Drew will always have a following because so many children who get started on the series really enjoy them. Nancy affords children adventure, mystery, and excitement in the safety of their own rooms."
It may help kids get into reading, but one library collection of girls' literature has just about shut the door on Nancy Drew. The Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, in Duke University's Special Collections Library, carries thousands of titles in girls' literature. The title of the library's bibliography: "Beyond Nancy Drew."
"This was a conscious effort on our part to highlight the universe of girls' lit that had not benefited from the kind of attention that Nancy Drew continues to get," says archivist Amy Leigh. But that's not to say that her influence is not felt. One of its mystery books, "Kay Tracey Mysteries," is a clone series actually based on Nancy Drew.
Assistant professor Lauryn Mayer argues that Nancy Drew should be taught in the classroom because she's an intelligent role model and she helps people.
"You have the serious schemes, and passion. And you get to move in an underworld. You can learn things that will help people in this other world," says Ms. Mayer, who taught a three-week course, "Tough Women in Detective Fiction," at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. Mayer says Nancy Drew was an integral part of her class when she talked about the history of pulp fiction and women in the workplace in the 1930s and 1940s.
"She gave women something to do besides just wearing a skirt," says Mayer.
"She faces up to frightening situations and is able to do it independently. She goes to a ton of places around the world. That's something you rarely see in young adult novels now. It's a narrative that is desperately needed in a time when so many novels like 'Sweet Valley High' are so much focused on 'Do you get the guy? Or don't you?' "
Although the books aren't superb literature, children's book authors today continue to be inspired by the smart sleuth. Daniel J. Hale and Matthew LaBrot, both Hardy Boys fans, used her as an archtype in their award-winning Zeke Armstrong Mystery Series. "She's so intrepid and always thinking, always willing to go out there and go the extra mile," says Hale.
But perhaps the reason young readers continue to turn the page is that she's just a regular person - flaws and all.
"Nancy Drew is clever and smart, but she is not infallible," says senior publicist Jennifer Zatorski of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. "She locks her keys in the car every so often, just like the rest of us. Make no mistake, Nancy is not dumb or flighty. She's just more focused on what's really important [crime] than what's not [the location of her car keys]."