THE GIRL SLEUTH
By Bobbie Ann Mason
University of Georgia 145 pp.,$10.95.
When I was a fourth-grader, curled up in the big chair in our den and devouring yet another Nancy Drew mystery, my mother would occasionally express concern about my literary habits.
''Can't you find something better to read?'' she would ask gently, echoing the sentiments of more than a few librarians and teachers.
''This is a good book,'' I'd reply, turning another page in the stories that transported me from my happy but sheltered Midwestern life to upscale River Heights, where 18-year-old Nancy, daughter of a famous criminal lawyer, was ever on the trail of some villain.
Mercifully, my friends and I never suspected that Nancy's prolific author, Carolyn Keene, didn't really exist. Her name was merely the pseudonym for a writing factory operated by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which churned out formulaic plots for more than 1,200 titles in series ranging from the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys to Judy Bolton, Cherry Ames, and Vicki Barr.
Bobbie Ann Mason's engaging analysis of these series, ''The Girl Sleuth,'' first published in 1975, has long been out of print. Now its reissue allows a new generation of adults to understand what made the series so irresistible.
These savvy heroines, . Mason explains, were ''girls who do things.'' Nancy Drew, for example, with her ''sporty maroon roadster'' and her boundless courage, ''was more liberated than girls had dared imagine - as free and self-possessed as any adult.'' As Nancy and other girl detectives bravely searched hidden panels and secret attics for irreplaceable heirlooms and lost letters, they spoke to youthful longings for drama, freedom, and a world beyond a reader's own limited horizons.
Mothers and librarians needn't have worried that juvenile series were fictional junk food. Stories contained a strong moral code and a wholesomeness that today seems amazingly naive.
The original books were vocabulary-builders. In the first 20 pages of my 1950s copy of ''Nancy's Mysterious Letter,'' a young reader encounters averse, venerable, fraudulent, uncanny, utilized, and celerity. Sadly, those words were cut when the book was revised in the 1960s.
The stories could also be dream-builders. I never wanted to be a girl sleuth, or even a grown-up sleuth. But what 10-year-old could fail to be impressed - perhaps even inspired - by Nancy's courage, intelligence, and self-reliance? The series had their faults, to be sure. Many dealt in stereotypes of good and evil. Their obvious sexism and extensive racism make the original versions embarrassing today, though offending passages have been carefully excised in later editions.
By current feminist standards, Mason argues, these stories fall short. The girl detectives always return from their adventures ''to a cozy symbolic nest.''
Mason also laments what she sees as ''the ambivalence in Nancy Drew. She always has it both ways - protected and free. She is an eternal girl, which is a false ideal for women in our time. Nancy's adventures take place outside time and space. Her task is to restore a crumbling place to a past and perfect order.'' That perfect order no longer exists, if it ever did. Perhaps that's why Judy Blume's novels, with their frank portrayals of family and social ills, now rank as favorite reading for many pre-adolescent girls. Yet some things never change. Today it is Blume's realism that prompts some mothers to ask, ''Can't you find something better to read?''
Nancy Drew may be outdated, but the idea of fictional role models is not. Mason's book offers a reminder of more innocent times, when an impossibly perfect 18-year-old could take on the forces of evil armed only with a magnifying glass and a flashlight - not a gun in sight anywhere. Young readers then and now could do far worse.