Nancy Drew and the case of a secret identity

This time, it was quite serious – how to appeal to boys? A quick-thinking mother comes to the rescue.

It was Nancy or nothing.

"Will you read me a story?" my 7-year-old asked. He and I were book-starved in Johannesburg, South Africa, an 11-hour drive from Sam's bedroom bookshelf in Zimbabwe.

For reasons that will become clear later on, I had no time to go shopping for books, though bookshops galore beckoned in Johannesburg's glitzy malls. Neither did I have the energy to concoct a story, as I'd done so many times before.

I sneaked into Sam's cousin Alex's bedroom, hoping to raid her bookshelf. Alex – short for Alexandra – is 9. Her bedroom is a little girl's dream of a lair: beribboned quilt covers, embroidered cushions, and giant hearts against a sky-blue wall.

I ran my finger along the spines on her shelf. My heart sank.

"There's an Owl in the Shower," by Jean Craighead George. Nice story, but Sam and I had already read it. "Fairy Stories, Collected." Sam would stop me after the first sentence. British author Lauren Child's "Clarice Bean, That's Me." There was no way Sam would fall for sassy Clarice, with her barely-disguised contempt for big brothers.

I spied a chunk of Ladybird reference books. My hopes rose, only to be dashed a second later. "No," Sam said firmly. "We read those at school."

That left only Nancy Drew. Nancy wasn't a part of my childhood. Growing up in rural England, I was reared on Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" adventures, Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," and L.M. Montgomery's "Anne of Green Gables" saga. I had, however, flicked through a few "Nancy Drew" stories later in life. I knew that the skilled amateur detective plunged herself bravely into dangerous situations, always caught the criminals, and had the police, well, just about eating out of her hand.

Nancy's exploits would bring a shine to Sam's eyes.

But there was a problem. She might be older than Clarice Bean, but Nancy was undeniably a girl and that meant – certainly as far as Sam was concerned – that "The Scarlet Macaw Scandal" was a story for girls. Unless ...

"Mum?" Sam was getting desperate.

There was only one thing to do: Turn "Nancy Drew" into a boys' story. To do that, I knew I'd need a strong male character. One of Nancy's two best girlfriends and accomplices is called George. I decided to make her a boy.

My eyes have always moved faster than my tongue. This has proved a disadvantage in several situations, including when I read bulletins for an internal radio station at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1998. Sometimes I'd be so engrossed in eyeing the second or third news items that I'd realize with a shock that I was still only enunciating the first.

This time, a quick eye worked in my favor. Sam and I plunged into the mystery of the disappearing monkeys at the Corcovado Ecologica resort in Costa Rica. "She" became "he" every time George was mentioned. I scrapped all references to clothes, makeup, and relationships that were sure to annoy Sam. I lingered over descriptions of digital cameras, global positioning system devices, and ATVs, all dear to any 7-year-old boy's heart.

"I like this story," Sam said after the first chapter.

Emboldened, I made female scientist Parminder a man, too. This proved tricky later on in the story when Parminder turns out to be in love with a fellow researcher. Lodge manager Jason, who's fueling the illegal trade in scarlet macaws, has dismissed this researcher, worried he'll discover his secret.

I tilted the pages away from Sam so he couldn't pick up on my fast and furious editing. In my version of "Nancy Drew for Boys," Parminder was simply respectful of his colleague. There was no mention of matters of the heart.

Several afternoons running, Sam and I snuggled on the green-and-white-checked cushions of his cousin's veranda in Johannesburg and plowed through Nancy and George's exploits in the lush Costa Rican rain forest. Somebody stole George's prized camera. Nancy and George (and Bess, George's cousin) stumbled on the cages the crooks were loading the scarlet macaws into. Nancy fell into an underground trap and twisted her ankle. She very nearly got kidnapped....

"Can't we get some more of these stories?" Sam asked, his eyes shining.

I nodded.

After all, I thought, looking down at Sam's tiny newborn sister, fast asleep in the crook of my arm: In a few years, "Nancy Drew" books might come in useful again.

And then I won't have to turn them into boys' stories.

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