Much Like Nancy Drew

Mildred Wirt Benson, aka Carolyn Keene, Writer for First Nancy Drew Books

She was independent, intelligent, resourceful, and a great favorite. Who am I talking about? Teenage sleuth Nancy Drew and Mildred Wirt Benson. The two had a great deal in common, including very long and active lives. Nancy Drew books, in one form or another, have been popular for more than 70 years. Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote the text of 23 of the first 25 Nancy Drew books under the direction of Edward Stratemeyer, was still an active newspaper columnist when she died in May of 2002 at the age of 96.

Benson's Early Years
Mildred A. Wirt Benson was a remarkable woman who knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer. Mildred Augustine was born on July 10, 1905, in Ladora, Iowa. Her first story was published when she was only 14. While attending the University of Iowa, she wrote and sold short stories to help cover college costs. Mildred also worked on the student newspaper and as a reporter for the Clinton, Iowa Herald. In 1927, she became the first woman to receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. In fact, it was while she was working for a master's degree that Benson submitted a manuscript for the Stratemeyer Syndicate's Ruth Fielding series and was hired to write for the series. She was then offered the opportunity to work on a new series about teenage sleuth Nancy Drew.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate
The Stratemeyer Syndicate was established by author and entrepreneur Edward Stratemeyer for the purpose of developing children's book series.

Stratemeyer created the characters and developed outlines of the plots for a variety of children's series and the Syndicate hired ghostwriters to turn them into books. The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew were among the series created through the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Benson recieved a flat fee of $125 from the Stratemeyer Syndicate for each book for which she was the writer.

While Benson never hid the fact that she wrote the text for the Nancy Drew books, the Stratemeyer Syndicate made it a practice to require that its writers remain anonymous and listed Carolyn Keene as the author of the Nancy Drew series. Not until 1980, when she testified in a court case involving the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its publishers, did it begin to become commonly known that Benson wrote the text of the first Nancy Drew books, following the outlines provided by Edward Stratemeyer.

Benson's Career
Although Benson went on to write numerous other books for youth on her own, including the Penny Parker series, the bulk of her career was devoted to journalism. She was a reporter and columnist in Ohio, first for The Toledo Times and then, The Toledo Blade, for 58 years. While she retired as a reporter in January of 2002 due to her health, Benson continued to write a monthly column "Millie Benson's Notebook." Benson was married and widowed twice and had one daughter, Ann.

Like Nancy Drew, Benson was smart, independent, and adventurous. She traveled a good deal, particularly in Central and South America. In her sixties, she became a licensed commercial and private pilot. It seems fitting that Nancy Drew and Mildred Wirt Benson had so much in common.

What Makes Nancy Drew Books So Popular?
What is it that has made Nancy Drew such a popular character? When the books were first published, Nancy Drew represented a new kind of heroine: a bright, attractive, resourceful girl, capable of solving mysteries and taking care of herself. According to writer Mildred Wirt Benson, "...it seems to me that Nancy was popular, and remains so, primarily because she personifies the dream image which exists within most teenagers." The Nancy Drew books continue to be popular with 9-12 year olds.

Some of the boxed sets you might consider are:

  • Nancy Drew Starter Set, which includes The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Secret of Shadow Ranch, and The Secret of Red Gate Farm, (compare prices), and
  • Nancy Drew Girl Detective Sleuth Set, which includes Without a Trace, A Race Against Time, False Notes, and High Risk (compare prices).
If you like audiobooks, try
  • The Secret of the Old Clock (compare prices) and
  • The Hidden Staircase (compare prices).
Individual Nancy Drew books, such as The Case of the Creative Crime (compare prices) and The Baby-Sitter Burglaries (compare prices) are also available in hardbound and/or paperback editions.

Have you read any Nancy Drew books? Do you recommend them? Which version do you recommend: the original series, still available, or the updated version? There are pros and cons to each. Let me know by posting a message on the About Children's Books Forum.