Have you ever noticed that re-visiting favorite childhood stories as adults allows us to pick up on so much that is easily overlooked as children in the sheer enjoyment of the plot’s action? Pearls of wisdom we may have missed or ways of thinking and talking that are now considered passé or politically incorrect. This was the case for me when I recently re-read a couple books in the Nancy Drew mystery series.
Written by multiple authors under the pen name Carolyn Keene, the books began to be published in the 1930s and have been popular reading material for generations of school-age girls ever since. Penguin Random House’s website describes the books as “a cherished part of our cultural landscape” and “a noted inspiration for generations of women.” The books have generated movie adaptations of the teenage sleuth as well as computer games and other items. One year, I even had a Nancy Drew wall calendar!
Though I haven’t come close to reading all of books, I periodically like to return to some of the older stories. While outmoded elements can be found in descriptions of and references to characters, I also found myself recognizing positive messages that this perennial series subtly conveys.
There are many hallmark features of these books: descriptions of Nancy’s and her friends’ various outfits on different occasions, plentiful meals and snacks supplied by Nancy’s housekeeper Hannah Gruen, and mention of the title of the previous mystery Nancy solved as well as an anticipatory mention of the next mystery Nancy will tackle after she has wrapped up the current one. And who can forget those classic cliffhanger chapter endings that made you read just a little bit more to see who had screamed or what would happen to Nancy after she was struck in the head and blacked out?
However, beneath the light-hearted fun and page-turning thrills, a few deeper messages emerge that are valuable reminders for readers of any age.
1.) The importance of family relationships. Nancy’s relationship with her attorney father Carson Drew is one of openness, respect, and confidence. Nancy always discusses her mysteries and problems with her Dad, asking for his advice and help when needed. In return, Carson Drew unfailingly tries to assist her. He also just as unfailingly encourages Nancy and puts his trust in her abilities and judgment. He has confidence in her, and she has the utmost respect for him.
Though it’s hard to imagine many real-life fathers agreeing to allow their 18-year-old daughters to attempt many of the things Nancy ventured to do in pursuit of clues and criminals, their relationship is a good example of a father-daughter bond. Moreover, it underscores the importance of parents and mentors in the lives of young adults not only to advise and to warn but to encourage and to instill self-confidence. Especially in the ‘30s when the books were first published, Carson Drew’s support of Nancy’s intelligent and adventuresome spirit is noteworthy and empowering.
Meanwhile, Nancy’s rapport with the Drews’ housekeeper Hannah Gruen is just as endearing in different ways. As we are reminded in each book, Nancy’s mother died when Nancy was a little girl and Hannah became a mother-figure to her. Always fretful over the danger Nancy might be facing on her adventures and ready with revivifying food any time of the day or night, Hannah’s tender love and concern for Nancy exemplify the importance of always being there for family (blood-related or not) and of not being afraid to show you care.
2.) The need for loyal, supportive friends. Though our sometimes seemingly perfect heroine Nancy is clever, brave, and self-reliant, she could never have solved her many mysteries without the aid of her best girlfriends Bess and George and frequently her “favorite date” Ned Nickerson as well as Dave and Burt, Bess’ and George’s boyfriends, respectively. And Nancy would likely be the first to acknowledge that fact. They were the ones alongside Nancy, “in the trenches,” so to speak, braving danger, contriving narrow escapes, and outwitting bad guys. Bold George always jumped at the chance to assist however she could. Bess, though usually more timid at the start, continually came through for her friend. Of course, the boys always did their best not only to protect their girlfriends but also to help solve the case.
These friends’ willingness to help their pal Nancy through thick and thin reminds us not only of the need to have people in our corner to assist us in reaching our goals and overcoming our challenges but also of the need to be that kind of supportive person for our loves ones. Everyone needs help along the way and the Nancy Drew books provide concrete examples of this truth through the lens of a group of friends teaming up to solve a mystery.
3.) Compassion for others. In the series’ first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, Carson Drew states that Nancy loves to help people. Nancy’s intelligence, affinity for mystery and her sense of adventure aren’t used for frivolous or selfish motives. Instead, she puts them at the service of others. She’s not hesitant to become involved in the problems of other people, even people she just met. She utilizes her talents to help them. While we obviously must exercise prudence in determining how much we insert ourselves into other people’s problems, these stories show us that good, old-fashioned love of neighbor can come in many forms. We sometimes might think that charity only consists in volunteering with or donating money to a designated charitable organization. However, Nancy demonstrates that serving others can be as simple and as creative as using our talents and interests to help those we meet, and she always makes new friends in process. This is certainly a message that is both timely and timeless.
One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis is: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” The truth is that quality children’s literature, seemingly simple as it may be, frequently contains a wealth of wisdom while also providing an entertaining tale. Initially, the Nancy Drew mystery series may not seem like a candidate for such edifying literature, but a closer look at this famous teenage sleuth with her kindness, smarts, spunk, and respect for others, may just show that she is a worthy girlhood role model who will continue to stand the test of time.