The Mystery of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys


I saw posted online that yesterday was the birthday of Edward L. Stratemeyer. He is an author whose name doesn’t come up too often in literary discussions, but he had a big impact on my early reading habits. This  New Jersey author (born in Elizabeth, NJ in 1862) was not schooled for literature. His father was a tobacconist, but his first story (supposedly written on packing paper) got published and started him on a career writing adventure stories for young readers.

He became one of the most successful children’s book authors of his day. He is the man who created the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, and Nancy Drew.

He wrote about 150 books on his own before he created a company in 1906 called the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He was a pioneer in this publishing idea of creating a long-running, series of books using a team of freelance writers. All of the books in the series used the same characters in similar situations and all the books were published under a pen name owned by his company. The ghostwriters wrote based on his outlines.

The idea continues today with lots of books series, especially for young readers. Writers such as R.L. Stine owe something to him for his “Goosebumps” series.  The many Star Wars books continue the world created by the first films, and the numerous Star Trek novels that are written by many authors, also continue to use the characters with the permission of the copyright holders.

Stratemeyer made authors swear to secrecy and not reveal that they were writing any of the series books. As a child, I imagined Franklin Dixon who was listed as the author on the cover as a kind of literary adventurer. The syndicate even invented fictional biographies for the ghostwriters.

There were no “young adult” books in those days. There were children’s books, but Stratemeyer helped create the genre of juvenile fiction.

The Rover Boys series started in 1899, followed by The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and Baseball Joe.  In 1927,  The Hardy Boys debuted and Nancy Drew came the year after following many of the Hardy Boys plot outlines but written for the young  female detective and audience.

It seems that there were at least 25 writers, known and unknown, who wrote Hardy Boys novels that carried the Franklin W. Dixon name on the cover. The one writer who gained some personal attention finally was Leslie McFarlane. He wrote about 20 of the Hardy Boys adventures, including volumes 1-16. His own account of writing for the syndicate is in his memoir Ghost of the Hardy Boys. It is out-of-print and I only got a chance to read it through an inter-library loan.

A 1930s edition

My own copies of the Hardy Boys adventures (seen at the top) are the ones popular in the late 1950s and 60s. You can find many different editions of the books through the years. Nancy, Frank, and Joe get better looking and hipper/cooler depending on the decade.

The Hardy Boys were definitely a big part of getting me into reading chapter books. My mom was very wise to make getting a book a great thing. They were rewards for good schoolwork and surprises when I was home sick for a few days from school.

I wanted all the Hardy Boys books and I wanted to read them in the number order of the series. I didn’t get through all of them – a combination of lack of funds and growing out of the series as I grew into books hat more in the fiction and literature sections of the bookstore, rather than the children’s section.

But the series were books that I owned. Fifty percent of the books I read from kindergarten through high school were borrowed from the library, but I owned the Hardy Boys and displayed all those matching spines proudly on my bookshelf.

There was no great love for the Syndicate books back in the day. Libraries refused to carry any of the series, calling them unworthy trash. They were criticized and said to “cause ‘mental laziness,’ induce a ‘fatal sluggishness,’ and ‘intellectual torpor.”

Despite claims that they would ruin a child’s chances for gaining an appreciation of good literature, I moved on from them and loads of Classics Illustrated comic books to the actual classics and became an English major, teachers and professor.  More recent studies have proven those old beliefs to be unfounded. These days I would encourage young people to read whatever interests them. Just read!

I know that one summer, desperate for reading material, I came upon some original Tom Swift books and I gobbled up my older sister’s (not a reader) Nancy Drew books. She only had a half-dozen of them. They were fun and different. I also grabbed her Seventeen and Teen magazines – after all, you need to research the enemy, plus all those cute girls.

The Nancy Drew series was listed as being written by Carolyn Keene, who was also the pseudonym for any of the series writers.

staircaseNancy, like Frank & Joe, evolved in response to changes in American culture and tastes. In the 1960s, they were revised and shortened, supposedly both to lower printing costs but also from eliminating stereotypes. Oddly, Nancy is said to have become less assertive and more feminine in the 60s revisions. It wasn’t until the 1980s that an older and more professional Nancy emerged in a new series, The Nancy Drew Files, although it also included more romantic plots for her.

In 1977, some of these characters were brought to TV in a crossover series. First, they were separate Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series alternating in the same time slot on ABC. The second year the casts combined as The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and in 1978 the Nancy Drew thread was dropped and The Hardy Boys Mysteries continued on alone. The adolescent brothers Frank and Joe Hardy, updated but based on the Franklin W. Dixon versions, worked with and without Keene’s Nancy Drew character.

Like kids on The Simpsons, Family Guy and other animated series, Nancy, Frank, Joe, Tom and the others never aged. Everything took place in one incredibly action-packed virtual year.

The Boys have many international fans too.

I am sure I was blind to any racism in the books as a young reader – and no doubt it was there. The themes were very much All-American white boys from a family with a great father, mom and aunt, money when they needed it and the freedom and time to pursue their cases. Okay, it was pure wish-fulfillment. And it worked.

I actually saw Edward L. Stratemeyer’s gravesite. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in New Jersey, not far from where I grew up. I went there on a literary pilgrimage to find another author that I really admired, Stephen Crane.

In 1926, the American Library Association sponsored a survey of juvenile reading preferences, asking 36,000 children in 34 different cities about their favorite books. A shocking 98 percent of those children responded with a Stratemeyer title.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate titles are now published by Grosset & Dunlap (they have the rights to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys volumes that they had published previously) but newer titles are published by Simon and Schuster. The titles still sell about 6 million books each year.

For fans and collectors:

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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