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Mystery Of the Girl Sleuth

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Among my many failings as a parent has been my inability to convince my daughters to read Nancy Drew.

As a child, I didn't so much read Nancy Drew mysteries as devour them, from yellow cover to yellow cover. I would no sooner be done with "The Secret in the Old Attic" than I would start in on "The Mystery of the Tolling Bell."

I wanted to Be Like Nancy -- who wouldn't? She was smart and adventuresome, quick-thinking and fearless, the epitome of independence in her sporty blue roadster.

Perhaps most important for a girl reading Nancy in the early 1960s, she showed that girls could have it all, complete with a wardrobe of sweater sets and sheaths, and a boyfriend, the endlessly tolerant Ned Nickerson, who never got in the way of her sleuthing.

"Nancy manages the almost impossible feat of being wholesomely 'feminine' -- glamorous, gracious, stylish, tactful -- while also proving herself strong, resourceful, and bold," novelist Bobbie Ann Mason wrote in "The Girl Sleuth."

Years after I was officially too old for Nancy, I would sometimes go down to the basement -- alas, no secret passageway -- and spend a cozy afternoon curled up with Nancy.

I was not, of course, alone in this passion. Conceived by a man but, for the most part, written by women under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, Nancy has sold more than 200 million copies since 1930. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has attributed her feminist streak to "growing up on Nancy Drew."

"Here was somebody who was doing things," Ginsburg told me. "She was fearless. She was what every girl would like to be."

The Somali Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali had the same reaction decades later. "From the time I started reading novels of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, I wanted to be like Nancy Drew," she told "60 Minutes."

So when I had daughters, I was sure it was a matter of time before Nancy became part of their lives. Yet I had no luck. Perhaps it was the old-fashioned design I find so comforting and familiar that turned them off -- the fusty typeface, the stylized cover paintings of titian-haired Nancy in sensible shirtdress.

Now, my 12-year-old is irretrievably beyond the Nancy zone. She is deep into a truly odious series, the Clique books, about a group of popular rich girls, which seem to be more product placement than novel. She just finished a book called "You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah!" Nancy Drew, it's safe to say, didn't know from bat mitzvahs.

But the Nancy Drew movie has come along in time for Julia, 10. Anything that gets turned into a movie can't be that bad, even if your mother likes it. And so, in the past few weeks, Julia has started reading Nancy -- first, "The Secret of the Old Clock," now, "The Hidden Staircase."

Julia and I went to see the movie last week. I was braced to hate it; the movie is set in the present, Nancy leaves River Heights for California, and I imagined Nancy turned Valley Girl. Omigod, it's a clue! Instead, the creators let Nancy be Nancy, with her Peter Pan collars, knee socks and penny loafers, but also with a laptop and iPod.

I hope the movie will generate more Nancy readers, but I have a theory about why the series is not as popular among girls today as in my generation or Justice Ginsburg's. It came to me as Julia and I were watching the most recent Democratic candidate debate. Hillary Clinton-- yes, Nancy Drew was her favorite as a girl, too -- began to talk about "when I become president."

Truth is, whenever I hear the senator say that, I cringe. It sounds, to my 40-something ear, awfully presumptuous, the kind of boasting that nice girls don't do. But Julia had a different reaction. "That was good," she pronounced, unprompted. "It made her seem very confident, like she was in charge."

This, I think, is the difference between her generation and those that have gone before: Girls now don't need Nancy Drew. They know what we had to learn -- that self-confidence is something to celebrate, not suppress; that they don't need to apologize for being assertive, or even, heaven forbid, ambitious.

For us, Nancy Drew was revolutionary. Today, she's the new normal.

Subscribe to the podcast of this column here. The writer's e-mail address is marcusr@washpost.com.


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