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I have a confession to make:  I have never read a Nancy Drew novel.

That's right.  I've been reading since I was about four, started reading mysteries when I was around ten, yet never once have I cracked open the adventures of the most famous female detective in American letters.  I read a book about her (Melanie Rehak's splendid Girl Sleuth), and occasionally I've flipped open a used copy at a tag sale, but I managed to get through a childhood and adolescence of almost constant reading without actually meeting Nancy Drew, her friends, her father, her maid, or her roadster.

The same applies to several other now-iconic figures of children's literature such as Trixie Belden and Cherry Ames.  It wasn't that I read exclusively Newberry winners – far from it, I read plenty of Betty Cavanna and BJ Chute – but that with one exception, I never was much interested in open-ended children's book series.  

Sequels, yes; I read almost everything I could find by Robert Lawson, Eleanor Estes, and Edward Eager, and I freely confess that my love affair mid-century New York began with Elizabeth Enright's books about the Melendy kids' adventures at the opera, the museum, and the circus.  I also loved series books, like Lloyd Alexander's wonderful Chronicles of Prydain and Walter Farley's equally wonderful Black Stallion books, and of course Tolkien even though LOTR isn't a children's book at all.  I have no doubt that I would have adored Tamora Pierce if she'd been around when I was growing up, and as an adult I've thoroughly enjoyed Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, and plenty of other excellent literature originally written for the young in body.

But Nancy Drew?  No interest at all.  Ditto the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift Jr., the Dana Girls, the Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, and rest of their numerous tribe.  It may have been at least partly Mum's insistence that I read  only good literature (or, why she introduced me to Robert Frost at such an early age that lines from “The Death of the Hired Man” are permanently engraved in my cerebral cortex).  There was also the fact  that I was already all but memorizing adult reference books on mythology and archeology before I was in the third grade and cared more about Athena, Archilles, and Alexander the Great than the average child.  Add in that I was reading Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Ellery Queen by the time I was thirteen, and it's little wonder that Nancy's adventures seemed somewhat tame in comparison.

Perhaps it was the format of these books.  Mostly produced under the aegis of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, an early book packager that specialized in clean, wholesome, adventurous-but-not-too-adventurous books for children, these series were written by a variety of professional writers to a strict and unvarying formula, from the cover art to the quick recap of previous adventures in the first pages to the cliffhanger chapter ends, the unvarying descriptions of the characters to the last paragraphs with a reference to future volumes.

Now, I'm sure that alert readers will point out that adult books frequently include similar devices to hook the reader and keep him/her coming back for more; the cliffhanger chapter ending is a cliche in adventure fiction, and just how Rex Stout explained away Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin not being in a nursing home by the late 1960s is still not clear.  It's also unfortunately true that most novels, series or not, that include a romantic subplot don't go much further than getting their protagonists paired off, or why Nora Roberts' In Death series, which is devoted as much to the ongoing relationship between police detective Eve Dallas and her husband Roarke as the mystery du jour, is so unusual.  Series books are supposed to include familiar elements, with just enough variation to keep the reader interested while still maintaining the elements that made the first few books so interesting.

At the same time, adult series books usually hold out the potential for more.  A new love interest may appear at some point (Harriet Vane).  A villain may take center stage (Arnold Zeck).  Former antagonists may join forces (Miles Vorkosigan and his clone/brother Mark).  An event that took place several books ago can suddenly become relevant, a character presumed dead can return for good or ill, a happy marriage can dissolve, a major supporting character or even a protagonist can die...

In other words, just like in real life, even the happiest group of adventurers can have their lives altered permanently without warning.

Contrast this, gentle readers with the formula worked out by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, creator of Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Bomba the Jungle Boy, the Dana Girls, the Bobbsey Twins, Honey Bunch, and literally dozens of other children's series that entertained generations of American youth.  A prolific writer himself (over 1300 known titles, which makes Barbara Cartland look like a piker), Stratemeyer was one of the originators of what is now called book packaging:  he would come up with a character, idea, or basic setting, hire writers to produce the actual books under a work-made-for-hire contract, and retain all the rights to the titles in the series.  Each volume would have incidents, and accidents, and plenty of adventure, but at the end of the day, just like an episode of Scooby-Doo, nothing important would have happened in the characters' lives, and they could come back for the next volume with no baggae that would either frighten a reader or prevent a new fan from picking up an installment and diving right in.  

This practical if somewhat mercenary idea lead to what can legitimately be called a publishing empire; starting in 1906 with the Rover Boys, Stratemeyer soon found himself dominating the children's book market to an unprecedented extent.  There were literally dozens of series in print at any one time, with hundreds of writers (many adult pulp writers or journalists) churning out gems like Honey Bunch, Her First Day at School to the following strict formula:  

1. All books would be part of a series, which meant no stand-alone novels like, say, Johnny Tremain.

2. All books would be written under a “house name” like Laura Lee Hope or Franklin Dixon, which meant that the characters and writing style could change from book to book, sometimes with drastic results.

3. All books would be approximtaely the same length, meaning that JK Rowling would have been dumped the moment she turned in the manuscript of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, multi-trillion sales or not.

4. Chapters would end mid-situation, ensuring that the reader would continue regardless of whether or not s/he had school the next morning.

5. Each book would begin with a quick if not especially graceful recap of previous stories, ensuring that the reader would promptly start nagging Mummy and Daddy for the other three hundred seventy-five volumes in the series.

6. The same would apply to the ending, which frequently would end with a clumsy pitch for the inevitable next volume along the lines of “Nancy ... could not help but wonder when she might encounter as strange a mystery as the recent one. Such a case was to confront her soon, The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes."

7. Characters could not age, could not marry, could not move out of their parents' basements homes, and could not suffer any permanent injuries, scars, psychological torments, or undergo any changes beyond the occasional reference to hairstyle, or car model. This was thanks to the precipitous drop in sales once the Rover Boys had gotten married, but it eventually caused the average child to wonder just how all these adventures occurred without the use of a TARDIS or the protagonist needing extensive, expensive, ongoing psychological treatment.

Despite the scorn of critics and librarians, who decried the exciting if not particularly deep offerings of the Syndicate as trash that would prevent children from ever appreciating good literature, children and parents eagerly snapped up the Syndicate's productions almost as soon as they appeared.  Youngsters were thrilled to get books that were clearly written for them, not their parents, while parents were delighted that their tots were devouring something that wasn't Thrilling Wonder Zeppelin Stories or similiar trash.  Even better (at least for female readers), many of the series were quietly but unmistakably subversive, with tomboyish heroines who solved mysteries, outwitted bad guys, and got the boy without hiding their intelligence or strength of character.  

Stratemeyer may or may not have been aware that by publishing books for girls that portrayed heroines as more than shrieking ninnies he was undermining societal norms, and almost certainly wouldn't have cared if a modern social scientist had jumped in a TARDIS to put a bee in his ear.  He was out to make money, not reshape gender norms, and if this meant girl heroines who drove their own cars and solved crime, well and good.  Bad reviews meant nothing to him as long as a book or series appealed to its audience, and he shrugged off seeming setbacks like being banned from the Newark Public Library system with lines like,  "Taking them out of the Library has more than tripled the sales."  He had caught lightning in a bottle, and when he died in 1930 and left the Syndicate to his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and her sister Edna Stratemeyer Squier.  Edna was not interested in publishing and quickly sold her share to Harriet, who was, and Harriet, who pretended for years that she was only author of the Nancy Drew series, headed the company until her death in the early 1980s.

Of course success begets success, and soon the Syndicate found itself competing with other book packagers specializing in children's literature.  The best known of these is probably Whitman, publisher of Golden Books, Little Golden Books, Big Little Books (do we see a pattern here?), Dell Comics, Walter Disney comics and adaptations, a variety of media tie-ins that included everything from 1930's radio host Uncle Don to Hawaii 5-0, Betty Crocker cookbooks (?), and cardboard stands for coin collectors (??).  They also published several mystery series, including the adventures of girl detective Trixie Belden, but the sheer variety of their product line prevented them from the sort of pervasive influence enjoyed by the Stratemeyers.

Tonight I bring you two products from this oft-overlooked subgenre of children's fiction.  The first, a series about adorable, innocent, somewhat dimwitted tots by the "author" of the Bobbsey Twins, enjoyed a brief vogue beginning during the Great War but disappeared during the early years of the Great Depression.  The second, a rare Stratemeyer series that was written by one author, eventually owned by one author, and based on an actual family, began during that brief, golden, post-war period when a man could support a large family in suburban splendor:

Bunny Brown and his Sister Sue and its 19 sequels, by "Laura Lee Hope" - "Laura Lee Hope" has a nice ring to it.  The surname is synonymous with optimism, while the double first name is reminiscent of days sipping lemonade or iced tea out on the veranda in a sleepy small town, golden sunlight playing about the petunia beds as rosy cheeked children and friendly, graceful dogs romp about playing croquet and badminton on a lazy summer day.  Isn't that just the sort of author an anxious parent, concerned about the little ones accidentally picking up Papa's copy of In Our Time or Mama's well-thumbed confession magazine, could trust to entertain the young with wholesome merriment?

So the Stratemeyer syndicate had assumed before Ernest Hemingway or Bernarr McFadden had made their respective contributions to American letters.  First used by Edward Stratemeyer as a pseudonym for the publication of the first Bobbsey Twins book in 1904, the fictitious but genteel Ms. Hope was the putative author of Stratemeyer series appealing to the very young.  These books weren't quite as stuffy or as behind the times as one might assume - among "her" offerings were the seven volumes of the Moving Picture Girls series between 1914 and 1916, and what could be more modern than that? - but most, including the Bobbseys, the Six Little Bunkers (14 adventures chronicled between 1918 and 1930), and the accurately titled Make Believe Stories (12 volumes in the early 1920's), were devoted to the sort of exciting, worrisome, but ultimately harmless adventures that would thrill a small child without causing nightmares.  That Ms. Hope (or whomever was using the name at the moment) was on to something is clear from the success of the Bobbseys, who have starred in almost two hundred books and haven't aged much despite a century of time and enormous social changes.

And then there was Bunny Brown.

Bunny, who was most definitely a boy despite a nickname that would seem to doom him to a life of being mocked, having his lunches and comic books stolen, and spending large quantities of his free time shoved face first into lockers or stuffed head down into dumpsters, was all of six years old.  His sister Sue, a year younger, was seemingly the brains of the operation (and much less likely to be stuffed in a locker unless her family privately called her "Sparklypoo"), as we can see from the very first lines of their very first appearance:

"Bunny! Bunny! Wake up! It's time!"

"Wha--what's matter?" sleepily mumbled little Bunny Brown, making his
words all run together, like molasses candy that has been out in the hot
sun. "What's the matter, Sue?" Bunny asked, now that he had his eyes
open. He looked over the side of his small bed to see his sister
standing beside it. She had left her own little room and had run into
her brother's.

"What's the matter, Sue?" Bunny asked again.

"Why, it's time to get up, Bunny," and Sue opened her brown eyes more
widely, as she tried to get the "sleepy feeling" out of them. "It's time
to get up!"

"Time to get up--so early? Oh, Sue! It isn't Christmas morning; is it,
Sue?" and with that thought Bunny sat up suddenly in his bed.

"Christmas? No, of course not!" said Sue, who, though only a little over
five years of age (a year younger than was Bunny), sometimes acted as
though older than the blue-eyed little chap, who was now as widely awake
as his sister.

"Well, if it isn't Christmas, and we don't have to go to the
kindergarten school, 'cause it's closed, why do I have to get up so
early?" Bunny wanted to know.

Not precisely the sharpest tool in the shed, our hero.  He also has certain sartorial challenges, being a "chubby little chap" who wears "stockings and little knickerbockers" without being prompted, threatened, or having his adoring mother stuff him into the said nether garments like sausage meat into a too-small casing.  Then again, these adorable little darlings are so determined to be up to greet their Aunt Lulu (who lives in that exotic metropolis called "New York") at the train station in their little Jersey Shore town that they arise before their parents (say what?) and attempt to rustle their own grub (bread with what sounds like half a stick of butter for Bunny, a piece of cake for Sue), so it's little wonder that their cover art makes them look rather too much like Buster Brown for comfort.

As for how Bunny (who may or may not have a real first name) and Sue amuse themselves, why, it's simple, at least according to the author (probably Howard Garis, who also inflicted Uncle Wiggily on the unwitting public):

The two Brown children were good company for each other. You seldom saw Bunny without seeing Sue not far away. They played together nearly all the while, though often they would bring other children to their yard, or would go to theirs, to play games, and have jolly times. Bunny was a boy full of fun and one who sometimes took chances of getting into mischief, just to have a "good time." And Sue was not far behind him. But they never meant to do wrong, and everyone loved them.
This love endures throughout a series of the sort of clumsily endearing mishaps, misunderstandings, and adventures that were a staple of clean family entertainment a century ago; they encounter goats and monkeys, go to a puppet show, find (and lose) some eggs, cheer up their spinster aunt, pretend they run a store, visit their grandparents' farm, lose a horse (do we detect a pattern here?), go on picnics, meet gypsies (in New Jersey?), lose a pie (what it is it about these children?), meet a bear at summer camp, pretend they're in the circus, and travel to distant places like exotic New York, Christmas Tree Cove, Camp Rest-A-While, "the Sunny South," and "the Big Woods."  

All of this was quite acceptable in those simpler, more innocent times, which is why Bunny and Sue bumbled their way through twenty books between 1916 and 1931, when it became increasingly clear that modern times weren't quite so innocent, children weren't quite so willing to read about the exotic gypsies of the Jersey Shore when there were Okies driving past in their rickety trucks, and parents needed the fifty cents these masterpieces cost to buy the makings for what MFK Fisher quaintly named "sludge."  The world had changed, and poor Bunny Brown (probably now out dancing for dimes on the sidewalk in front of 21 or the Stock Club) and his sister Sue (a taxi dancer whose salary was all that kept poor Aunt Lu from gassing herself) had lost whatever popularity they'd enjoyed in less anxious times.

Then again, who knows?  Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue Ride the Rails might have sold fairly well to the sort of parents who read John Steinbeck.  And think of the sequels!  How about Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue Ride the Hindenburg?  Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue Meet the Bonus Marchers?  Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue Base Jump Off off the Chrysler Building?  Don't those sound like fun for all ages?

The Happy Hollisters and its 32 sequels, by "Jerry West" (Andrew E. Svenson) -  first encountered the Happy Hollisters when I was around seven or eight, and it was all my best friend's fault.  

We were living in Cleveland at the time, in a nice three bedroom ranch in a nice suburb not too far outside the city.  Dad worked for a local community college, Mum stayed home and looked after me and our dog Toto, and I went to school.  The only thing missing to complete this portrait of mid-century Boomer bliss was the absence of siblings, and that was solely because Mum had had such a rough time having me that her doctors told her, in essence, "Count your blessings and don't push your luck."

My best friend, Leslie, lived next door with her large, close knit family.  She was a couple of years older, but I was precocious enough to keep up with her most of the time, and when I was sick with something that was probably pneumonia or bronchitis, Mrs. Rimbaud came over with a sack of Leslie's favorite books so I would have something to read while I convalesced.  

As I may have mentioned before, my parents (especially my mother, the once and future English teacher) were firmly of the opinion that their only child should read only "good literature."  This meant Newberry winners, children's classics, the occasional McGuffey's Reader that Mum had inherited from her aunt 'Lena, and every issue of National Geographic except the ones that showed the horrors of the Canadian seal hunt.  With the sole exceptions of the Black Stallion books (which were surprisingly well written) and Dad's attempt to hook me on comic books (most likely DC, which is ironic considering I'm currently wearing a Captain America t-shirt), the tone of my reading material was, to say the least, rather refined.  

This may be why I seized upon Leslie's offerings with the sort of slavering delight usually seen in hungry coursing hounds that are suddenly given a nice, steaming, bloody pile of entrails from a freshly killed deer.  I had never seen anything like this books, which were about a large (five kids!), happy (they never fought!), solidly middle class family with a dog (we had one of those!) and a cat (I wanted one of those!).  They were just like me and my family only different, and they solved mysteries!  Real, genuine, actual mysteries!  Exciting things were always happening in their little town of Shoreham, or at their dad's store, the Trading Post.  And best of all, the Happy Hollisters' parents took them seriously!  They didn't just snort when the kids pointed out that something was hinky, they helped solve the mystery and save the day!  What could be better?

And the fun didn't just happen in Shoreham, oh no!  Peter and Pame and Ricky and Holly and little Sue were always stumbling across mysterious goings-on, whether it was at their home near Pine Lake, taking a vacation on a river, at Snowflake Camp, or at the appropriately named "Mystery Mountain."  Nothing was as it seemed, at least outside the warm and cozy family circle, and despite the occasional problem from mean kids Joey Brill and Will Wilson (no relation to the protagonists of either the Poe short story or the Smithereens song (I think)), the Hollisters were always clever enough to figure out what was going on and bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion.

It's almost as if the whole family were training to run a conspiracy web site that finds ominous clues in every day life.

The Happy Hollisters, one of the later Stratemeyer series, were the creation of "Jerry West," aka the pseudonym assigned to former journalist and Rutgers creative writing professor Andrew Svenson when he joined the Syndicate in 1948.  Edward Stratemeyer was long dead, and his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, now the sole owner, had a less rigid managerial style than her father.  Once Svenson had proved that he could write slick, professional stories to the typical Stratemeyer tight deadline and the-same-only-different formula with contributions to the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys series, Adams took the unusual step of allowing him to create and write a series that would be his and his alone.

This series was of course the innocent mysteries that so delighted my elementary school self.  Based at least in part on the everyday life of Svenson's own large, happy family in Bloomfield, New Jersey, the Happy Hollisters made their debut in 1953 and continued to solve mysteries over the next sixteen years.  Svenson, who also created and wrote two more series during the Hollister years (one of which, the Tolliver series by "Alan Stone," was an early series by and about a non-stereotyped African-American family), kept a file of news clippings for inspiration, took notes on his own children's anecdotes from summer camp, and interviewed hundreds of non-related tykes for fresh material.  He also managed to get teachers and librarians on his side by interviewing them to find out what professionals would consider suitably wholesome and educational plots, settings, and clues for the youth of America.

Not surprisingly, the Happy Hollisters were a smash hit.  Thirty-three volumes with titles like The Happy Hollisters and the Punch and Judy Mystery, The Happy Hollisters and the Whistle-Pig Mystery, and The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Midnight Trolls poured off the presses, with eventual sales of over 11 million copies.  The Hollisters made the Stratemeyer Syndicate so happy that Andrew Svenson was made a partner in the Syndicate early in the 1960s, with de facto if not full legal control over his intellectual property.  So pleased was the Syndicate with Svenson's work that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took the unprecedented step of assigning the copyright to the Happy Hollister books to Svenson's widow, Marian, after his death in 1975.  The family still owns the rights to the books and has begun reissuing them, complete with the original illustrations and cover art, so that future generations can enjoy these wholesome exercises in finding clues to the extraordinary in ordinary life.

As for much as I enjoyed the Happy Hollisters, and as much as they entertained me when I was ill, the books had to go back to Leslie eventually.  Not only that, Mum, disturbed that I had basically inhaled what she termed "cute little mysteries" instead of more worthy books, basically guilted me into going cold turkey on the Hollisters by pointing out that I was so much brighter than average, and there were so many other books to read, that I really should read something else.  Being a dutiful child in those days, I did as I was told, and not only gave up the joys of Stratemeyer-quality fiction, but also comic books and Saturday morning cartoons.  Soon I had skipped ahead to adult mysteries and non-fiction, and I really never looked back.

What Mum would think of my current tastes in reading material (and t-shirt, and subject matter for these diaries) will never be known, but it's reasonably safe to say that it's a toss-up whether she'd be amused or appalled....


And so, my friends - did you read the Happy Hollisters?  Tom Swift?  The Bobbsey Twins?  God help us all, did you read Bunny Brown?  Did you know a boy named Bunny?  Were you named Bunny?  Will you admit it?  Don't be shy....


Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 11:30 AM Political Book Club Susan from 29
Mon 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29, michelewln
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month - on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
Fri 6:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid
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