12 March 2016

Why I Stopped Reading Nancy Drew: The Case of the Perfect Protagonist

by B.K. Stevens

I no longer remember the title of the last Nancy Drew mystery I checked out of the public library in Tonawanda, New York. I no longer remember anything about the case Nancy was working on or the clues she'd uncovered. But I do remember, almost word for word, the last two sentences I read before slamming the book shut and vowing never to read another.

ND1tsotoc.JPGNancy is with her friend Bess, investigating something or other outdoors. When the day begins to get foggy, Bess begins to fuss. She'd spent a long time working on her hair that morning, and now the moisture in the air is making her curls droop and die. Here are the sentences that ended my years as a Nancy Drew fan: "Nancy smiled. The damp air just made her own naturally curly hair even bouncier."

That did it. I'd long ago gotten used to the idea that Nancy is uniquely smart, brave, and pretty, that she's always the one who spots the clues and solves the mysteries. I knew her father is kinder and wiser than anyone else's, her boyfriend better looking than anyone else's, her eyes bluer and her roadster sleeker. I'd stopped being surprised when she keeps displaying new areas of expertise. When some snooty diving champions challenge her to a competition, I took it for granted that Nancy's jackknife would put theirs to shame. I was right.

But naturally curly hair? That was too much. Like poor Bess, I had stick-straight hair. I had to torture it to make it look slightly bent. And now, to learn that Nancy Drew, so clearly superior to me in every other respect, also effortlessly enjoys what I could never achieve--I couldn't stand it. I returned the book to the library and began a quest for a more satisfying teenaged detective. Nancy was probably supposed to be a role model, but she was so far out of my league that I couldn't even fantasize about rising to her level. I yearned for a teenaged detective who had flaws as well as strengths, one I could admire but still feel some kinship with, one who would set an inspiring example without depressing the hell out of me.

My favorite was probably Trixie Belden. When I began to think about writing this post, I decided to reread Trixie's first mystery, The Secret of the Mansion, to refresh decades-old memories. I was reminded that, like Nancy, Trixie is quick-thinking and courageous, with a keen sense of right and wrong. Unlike Nancy, though, she sometimes makes mistakes. She can be impetuous, tactless, even foolish. And she's not always the best at everything. Her closest friend, Honey West, is a far better rider. When Trixie impulsively mounts the most spirited horse in the West family stable, she gets thrown and narrowly escapes being trampled. When she dives into a lake to cool off, she forgets to check the depth, bumps her head on the bottom, and nearly passes out. She adores her sensible, loving parents but sometimes chafes at the chores they assign her, sometimes keeps secrets from them. None of that ever kept me from admiring Trixie, or from wishing her well in each of her adventures.

When I started toying with the idea of writing a young adult mystery of my own, I naturally began by reading some recent examples. A lot has changed since the days when Trixie and Honey bicycled down the tranquil streets of their fictional village of Sleepyside. Today's YA detectives may find themselves in the seedier sections of major cities, dealing with dangers ranging from gang violence to cyber-bullying, from serial killers to designer drugs. (Sometimes they also deal with vampires, shape-shifters, and evil wizards--but we'll set those aside.) At least in the books I've read, they seldom enjoy the guidance and protection of parents comparable to Trixie's, or to Nancy's rock-solid widowed father, prominent attorney Carson Drew. More often, their families are fractured by divorce, abandonment, death. Some have never known their fathers; many have to deal with parents who are abusive, addicted, or psychologically damaged. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of strong parents, these protagonists usually have reliable, fiercely loyal friends. I haven't read widely enough to hazard even a tentative generalization, but it seems to me that in some recent YA mysteries, friends play the roles parents used to play: The protagonist's parents may be inadequate or absent, but friends provide advice, support, and unconditional love.

And the young detectives themselves? In the books I read, I didn't find any Nancy Drew-type paragons who excel at everything, but I did encounter protagonists who might be considered paragons of resilience. Generally, they're tough, brave, and smart. They may be cynical and find it difficult to trust others--after all, they've usually been through a lot, and they've often got big problems at home. Aside from that, most of the YA detectives I met are surprisingly unscathed by their experiences and surroundings. Despite their haphazard upbringings, they're people of utter integrity. No matter how harshly they've been treated, they're sensitive and compassionate. And although their parents may be addicts, they live clean. Offhand, I can't think of a single teenaged detective who sneaks so much as a sip of beer, despite circumstances dismal enough to drive most of us to drink.

Reading these contemporary YA mysteries helped me begin to plan my own. I knew three things for sure. First, my protagonist would be male. At the time, I was teaching English in a Cleveland high school, and I wanted to write a book that would appeal to male students who, bright as they might be, often weren't enthusiastic readers. Second, my protagonist would be athletic. When I recommended outside reading novels to my male students, they often responded with a question straight out of The Princess Bride:"Are there any sports?" I wanted to write a book that would respond to that interest. And third, my protagonist would not have naturally curly hair.

Krav Maga trainingBeyond that, I wasn't sure. I had no interest in writing about a protagonist as flawless as Nancy Drew. I wasn't consciously thinking about Trixie Belden--until I started working on this post, I'd barely thought about her in years--but my protagonist, Matt Foley, has more in common with Trixie than with Nancy. He's a thoroughly nice kid with good instincts and a generous nature--for example, he won't stand idly by if someone else is being bullied--but he makes plenty of mistakes. He's not always a good judge of character: He can be taken in by a pretty face or a smooth talker, he's too quick to believe gossip, and he tends to think the people in his own popular crowd at school are superior to the misfits.

Matt's not as accident prone as Trixie, but he too can be impetuous, rushing into situations without pausing to weigh the dangers. (That's one advantage to having a teenaged male protagonist. If a widowed forty-year-old mother of two goes to a deserted spot late at night to search for evidence, she's being so culpably foolish and irresponsible that readers may well be incredulous, unsympathetic, or both. If a seventeen-year-old boy does the same thing--well, what else would you expect from a seventeen-year-old boy? He's young. He'll learn.) Matt treasures his friends, but he doesn't always get along with them smoothly. He clashes with his long-time best friend, Berk, when they both get interested in the same girl, and he jeopardizes his relationship with a new friend, Graciana, by making immature comments. When I think back to my own high-school days, that rings true. Friendships are vitally important, yes, but they can also be delicate, and they don't always last forever.

Then I thought about Matt's family. I ought to have some conflict there, I decided. Maybe his parents should be divorced. Maybe one or both should be abusive, or addicted to something. Maybe the family has been torn apart by some horrible experience, such as the violent death of an older sibling. After all, today's young adult novels are supposed to deal honestly with the problems real families face.

In the end, I decided to pass on divorce, abuse, addiction, and horrible experiences. I'm glad many mysteries for young people deal with such problems. That's important. But I think it's also important for some YA mysteries to acknowledge that even when families are intact, even when loving parents work hard to do their best, young people can still feel alienated and isolated. Even when problems aren't dramatic, they can still be real, still be frustrating--and sometimes, they can have a lighter side. Those are the sorts of family problems Matt faces in Fighting Chance.

Image result for Stevens fighting chance Matt's a good person, his parents are good people, and they all love each other. But they have different interests and different perspectives. Sometimes, those differences lead to relatively minor problems. Matt's resentful because his parents don't pay more attention to his athletic achievements, he doesn't understand how they can be so perpetually perky and upbeat, and he's appalled when his mother serves him tofu stir-fry and quinoa patties instead of the cheeseburgers he craves. Sometimes, the differences have more serious consequences. Determined to provide Matt with a sense of security, his parents don't talk about the problems they're facing. As a result, Matt feels there must be something wrong with him, since he's apparently the only one whose life isn't perfect. Because he assumes his parents won't be able to understand, he often keeps things from them, sometimes flat-out lies to them. He feels guilty about it, but he can't bring himself to open up to them until events in the novel face him to risk it. I like to think Fighting Chance is a coming-of-age novel as well as a whodunit. Reaching a better understanding of his parents is a major element in Matt's transition from childhood to adulthood.

There's no need for Nancy Drew to come of age, of course. In every important respect, she's already an adult on the first page of her first mystery. But she's been part of the coming-of-age process for countless young readers. For a while, at least, she sets an example for them, gets them excited about reading, and makes them love mysteries. Are there any adult female mystery readers or writers who didn't read Nancy Drew novels when they were young? Maybe, but I've never talked to even one who's admitted to such a shocking gap in her literary education. And I'd guess there are few, if any, adult male mystery readers or writers who didn't start out with the Hardy Boys. If we eventually get impatient with Nancy Drew, if we start yearning for mystery protagonists who are more like us and share more of our problems and shortcomings--well, that's probably part of the coming-of-age process, too. The young adult mystery is a genre within a genre, but it's neither narrow nor rigid. It's capacious enough, and flexible enough, to meet the needs of many different sorts of young readers in many different generations, at many stages in their progress toward adulthood. I slammed my last Nancy Drew novel shut many decades ago, but I'll always look back at Nancy with affection, and with gratitude.

Image result for nancy drew silhouette

22 comments:

Dale Andrews said...

A very interesting post.

Some years back I did a similar piece on The Hardy Boys.

http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/08/the-hardy-boys-mystery_27.html

These childhood memories are sometimes best left un-revisited. But for all of the shortcomings of both series they turned a LOT of us (me included) on to mysteries at an early age. And the series still continue to resonate. That earlier column I did had fresh comments as late as a few days ago. I'll bet this column has similar resonance.

Leigh Lundin said...

Intriguing analysis of current YA literature. They sound like good rĂ´le models. I need to read your book, Bonnie.

Dale Andrews has brought out criticisms about Nancy’s male counterparts, the Hardy boys. I’d heard before that Trixie Belden novels were better written with better plots and characters, but I’ve never read one.

Now that I think of it, Nancy Drew has come of age… and then some.

John Floyd said...

Great column, Bonnie! I read the Hardy Boys also, but I also read the Trixie Belden books. I agree that the Beldens were better.

Anonymous said...

We'll forever cherish our ties to Nancy and Trixie.

B.K. Stevens said...

Dale, Leigh, and John, thanks for your comments. Dale, I completely agree that Nancy (and Trixie, and the Hardy boys, and all the others)made many young people love mysteries. Both of my daughters loved Nancy Drew when they were growing up--one started to write a Nancy Drew novel of her own but, alas, never finished it. I bought a fresh copy of a Trixie Belden novel to refresh my memories for this post, and that book's going to go to my oldest granddaughter the next time I see her. Leigh, I read your piece on Nancy Drew coming of age--very interesting, and not as far-fetched as it might seem at first. I'll admit that, looking back as I worked on this post, I wondered about Nancy's friend George, especially since she's so tomboyish and Nancy's other friend, Bess, is so ultra-feminine. And of course the current Sherlock series has some fun with people assuming that Sherlock and Watson must be a couple. John, I don't have clear memories of the Trixie Belden books, but as I recall, Trixie actually grows up at least a bit during the course of the series. Unlike Nancy, she doesn't start out as perfect, so she has some lessons to learn and some maturing to do.

B.K. Stevens said...

Anonymous, I agree. Even after we move beyond these books, we never forget them. (And I have to put in a word for Cherry Ames and Donna Parker, too--not as well known as Nancy and Trixie, but I loved their books. There was also some girl detective who had some sort of connection to a newspaper, or wanted to be a reporter, or something along those lines, but I can never remember her name. Can anybody out there help?)

Leigh Lundin said...

An afterthought, Bonnie: I never cared for the popular Doc Savage series for the same reason– he was too perfect. He was faster than the fastest, stronger than the strongest, smarter than the smartest. Indeed, he spent much of his time rescuing his own crew. Where was the challenge?

Karoline Barrett said...

This was so good! I never thought of Nancy that way, but it's true! Although, I love my straight hair! I love Nancy, and still do; I even mention her in my own series, but you've made some excellent points. Thanks so much for sharing.

B.K. Stevens said...

Leigh, I'll admit I've never read a Doc Savage book--something tells me that's more of a guy-series. I think most of us can tolerate protagonists who are superior to us in most ways, as long as they also have some endearing weaknesses. Would Indiana Jones be so lovable if he weren't afraid of snakes? (Not that I'm superior to Dr. Jones in that respect--I'm far more afraid of snakes than he is and never would have controlled my fear long enough to make it out of that pit.) Karoline, I still have a lot of affection for Nancy, too. And maybe I'd find her novels easier to take now that I've discovered the wonders of permanents.

Anonymous said...

You make contemporary YA fiction sound far more powerful and meaningful than the stuff that was available when we were young. I read a few Trixie Belden books but threw aside the first Nancy Drew I read because it was too "fake" for my taste. Its voice struck me as the one some adults use to talk to a kid in this really phony way they *think* a kid needs and wants, as if kids are incapable of comprehending regular language and real life. (As opposed, you know, to the way *the author* thought and talked when they were themselves a kid. Two wholly different things.) There's an artifice to it that kids often find cloying or patronizing. Anyway, I'm really REALLY glad to hear, with the world in the state it's in, that YA authors -- you included! -- are stepping up to the plate and delivering real goods to young people who might not find it many other places. Heaven knows, we need a lot more fiction like that for adults, too. After all, if the only thing available with a good story is written in an immature voice (regardless of the reader's age), what are we going to do? What else is there to read? And what does that do to us, collectively, as communities and a culture?

Anonymous said...

I don't so much remember reading about a girl reporter but I seem to remember a girl reporter or two in the movies. Does that help?

Ritter Ames said...

Great post! Loved reading it. I was recently on a panel at Left Coast Crime and the first question asked was to name the first cozy mystery I'd ever read. I didn't hesitate for a moment and said, "While it might not be everyone's idea of a cozy mystery, I have to say The Mysterious Visitor, one of the books in the Trixie Belden series, and I was in the fourth grade." (I think that was book #4, but after reading it I read every other Belden book, starting at the beginning). To me, the Trixie Belden series solidified my love of what we now call cozy mysteries, and hit all the points of that form of the mystery genre. After I read all of Trixie's adventures, I moved on to Agatha Christie and let Miss Marple teach me all about human nature :)

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous at 15:22. Many of today's YA mysteries certainly tackle some difficult issues head-on, and I'm sure many young readers appreciate that. I think we have to give Nancy Drew some credit, too, though. As I said, I eventually got impatient with her for being so perfect, and no book can suit every reader's tastes and meet every reader's needs. But she's set an inspiring example of courage, independence, and strength for several generations of girls, and that's no small accomplishment. Anonymous at 15:35, I'm not sure about movies, but your comments stirred some memories. I think the girl detective I'm thinking of may have been Ginny Gordon. I just checked a Wikipedia article, and it says Ginny's father is the publisher of the local newspaper--that sounds right. Does anyone else remember this teen detective? Ritter, I remember The Mysterious Visitor--the memories are far from fresh, but I think it was one of my favorites; I'll have to see if I can get a copy, so I can reread it and pass it on to my granddaughters. I'm intrigued by what you say about Trixie Belden and cozy mysteries. You're right--Trixie's books have many of the elements we enjoy most in cozy mysteries, including the idea of a close-knit community disrupted by crime.

Beth said...

I started my love of mysteries w/ "The Bobbsey Twins" then moved to Nancy, Trixie and Cherry before jumping into Agatha 's stories and Perry Mason. I just purchased a Trixie Belden to refresh my memory (#2 "The Red Trailer Mystery." ) What a hoot to read the hook on the back. As a former children's librarian, lover of children's mysteries and a Guppy in the middle grade mystery field I recommend the following authors: Hahn, Kehret, Lindbergh's (Anne), Quinn, Balliett, Funke, Ernst. Many of these authors have been nominated for Agatha Award. The only problem I see is that it is difficult to compare the YA titles along with the middles grade children's mystery fiction. Love all this year 's nominees. Best cautionary YA title I recommend is Sharon Draper 's "Panic." Read it if you dare! Thanks for starting a great discussion, Bonnie!

B.K. Stevens said...

Beth, thanks for mentioning the Bobbsey Twins. I loved them, too--I gave a copy of a Bobbsey Twins book to one of my granddaughters not long ago, and she was thrilled. I know some of the middle-grade authors you mention--I just ordered Quinn's WOOF for one of my other granddaughters. I'll have to check out the other authors you mention, too. Mysteries for young people can be so much fun. Sometimes, I'm almost embarrassed by how much I enjoy them, but I shouldn't be embarrassed at all. A good mystery is a good mystery--period.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Like many others, I began reading and collecting the Bobbsey Twins (which I saved for my children who never got into them ), but I couldn't get hooked on nancy Drew or the Hardy boys....I read a few in each series and then jumped to collecting Trixie Belden and Cherry Ames (which I still collect). Belden felt more realistic as did Donna Parker, but my favorite plots were in Cherry Ames (even though they used a romantic easy pattern for resolution). Cherry Ames led me to books written by Janet Lambert (not mysteries but 1944 character studies-I could see the characters growing and developing). Perry Mason was a mixed bag....the books were fine, but my visualization was Raymond Burr. Again, character study as the ends were a true dump....but I liked how a clue or two were hidden. I ramble, but I read. When I started writing, it was the children's books I returned to to see what factors attracted me to reading - plot and character. What made me a reader thrilled to run to the store is exactly what goes into my adult books and short stories now,

Art Taylor said...

I love this post, Bonnie! Catching up this morning, but I appreciated both the reader response here (your young self) to Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and then the writer response even more, the perspectives you brought to this as an adult and the choices you've made in shaping your own contributions to the YA market. Terrific!

B.K. Stevens said...

Debra, I'm so glad to hear from someone else who remembers Donna Parker! I read and reread her books many times. I suppose they can't quite be called mysteries, though they always had mysterious elements. The main appeal, I think, was watching a girl who seemed very real to me face challenges--often with family and friends--and find ways to meet them. And Donna was a protagonist who definitely grew up during the course of the series. I loved Cherry Ames, too, partly because I found nursing so fascinating. Your closing comments are thought-provoking. You're right--books for young people do help us focus on the most fundamental elements in literature, the ones that make us want to keep reading. Art, this post was a lot of fun to write. (The research was fun, too--I hadn't read a Trixie Belden book in decades, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.) While I was writing FIGHTING CHANCE, I didn't often consciously focus on the mysteries I read while growing up--I thought more often about the contemporary YA mysteries I'd read recently--but I'm sure memories of Nancy, Trixie, and others had plenty of influence in shaping the book and the characters.

Susan D said...

You're so right: Trixie Forever. I've always called her the Thinking Girl's Nancy Drew. And I keep the first 6 on my mystery shelves (by Julie Campbell, before they were somewhat watered down by a syndicate named Kathryn Kenny).

My friend Donna and I read all the Donna Parker books too, but they weren't mysteries. Just Donna living her high school life in an intelligent and identifiable way.


B.K. Stevens said...

Susan D, I'm jealous! I wish I'd saved my Trixie Belden books, but I left them behind when I went to college, and they somehow disappeared over the years. I would have loved to share them with my daughters--and now, with my granddaughters.

The Donna Parker books definitely didn't focus on mysteries, and I don't know if there were ever any actual crimes involved--I doubt there were any violent ones, at least. But as I remember it, there was often some sort of mysterious phenomenon that had to be explained. For example, in one book (I think it was called "A Spring to Remember," but I'm not sure), Donna's parents are away (in India?), and a teacher is staying with Donna and her brother. The cash Donna's parents left behind for household expenses keeps disappearing, and for a while Donna suspects the teacher--but as it turns out, there's an innocent explanation. I don't know if there's even that much mystery in all of the others. I think there might have been, but it's been a long, long time--I may not be remembering correctly.

Eve Fisher said...

BK, Yes, I too read all the Nancy Drews I could get my hands on. But after a while I found myself disgusted with sidekick Bess Marvin, who was not only saddled with being "chubby" (sometimes called fat), but was made man-hungry and a coward to boot (she's always saying, "no, let's run!" or some equivalent thereof). And George Fayne wasn't a tomboy, like Jo March, she was gay, I don't care what anyone says.

B.K. Stevens said...

Eve, I'll admit I sometimes identified with Bess, partly because in situations when she was scared, I probably would have been scared, too. As for George, I just read Leigh's column called "Nancy Drew Comes of Age"--it touches on some related issues. Here's the link: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2014/06/secrets-of-girl-sleuth.html.