Since I recently read a Nancy Drew that I’d been meaning to get around to for about, oh, 28 years, and I realized that I enjoyed it as much as when I was a kid that long, long time ago, I’ve gotten onto a girls’ mystery series kick. The Beverly Grays I discovered in a used bookshop are helping fuel the interest, as are the beautiful galleries of bookcovers that exist on Pinterest and elsewhere; illustrations for those old books were works of art.
Obviously, my renewed interest in contrived, formulaic children’s books required justification, so I decided to read the social and literary criticism of girls series written in 1975 by Bobbie Ann Mason, who was then fresh out of graduate school at a time when these types of books were still being written. Consequently, she looks at the various series with sober consideration that certainly makes a Nancy Drew lover slap her head with wonder that anyone could think so much about something so seemingly inconsequential. I mean, these books are just supposed to be fun, aren’t they?
Well, my answer is yes they’re fun….but not just fun. Mason explains the interesting origins of series books and the way they evolved from some pretty girly, sappy, prim and annoying stuff like, for example, the Honey Bunch series. Yes. Honey. Bunch. Not at all what we’re used to today, not even what I was used to growing up in the early eighties.
Apparently, Honey Bunch was prissy and perfect and polite beyond measure. Eventually, this little specimen of perfection made way for other stories featuring bands of children from upperclass homes with no personal or financial problems who ran around having the kinds of adventures more like the ones I remember envying as a child in the real world. The Bobbsey Twins are the main example Mason gives. The Bobbsey books went through their own changes, thankfully eliminating the racist passages they earlier had casually contained. And, of course, the kids began solving mysteries.
Wealthy children with adult-like freedom solving crimes were quite the thing at the time, and Mason runs readably through the list of the many series that were being produced. There are, of course, the Nancy Drews. But there are many more with very similar premises and, Mason argues, important nuanced differences. The Judy Bolton series sizes up best in Mason’s opinion because of its well-rounded and relatively realistic protrayal of the main character. Other series, like Beverly Gray and Trixie Belden, fall somewhere between Judy Bolton and Connie Blair, a series that Mason reflects on by saying, “I have the impression that the priority of Connie Blair books (by Betsy Allen) is sexist teachings.” (page 115, 1995 printing, University of Georgia Press)
Sexism, racism, food, shallow characterizations….these are all topics discussed by Mason as she takes us through the chronology of girls’ mystery series. And, it’s really fascinating. Particularly interesting is reading The Girl Sleuth 37 years after it was written. I had to remind myself this was a time of firey feminism, and I was just a few years away from reading these books, myself. So, the present tense jarred me a little, but in a wonderfully thought-provoking way.
Clearly, there’s no need to use a light social criticism of kids’ lit to justify a romp or two (or twenty) through my old Nancy Drews or the newfound blue tattered Beverly Grays or, frankly, whatever else I decide to read. I’m thinking Vicki Barr, a sleuthing stewardess, might be next. But, if you remember these books from your past, or if you or your daughter reads them today – and why not? – Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl Sleuth can be a wonderful way to learn about the history of these books, and about their possible raison d’etre, consequent impact and the reflection the cast on their writers and publishers, too.
Personally, I’d love a chance to ask Bobbie Ann Mason if her feelings have changed at all in the eventful intervening years since her book’s first publication. I’d love to find out what she’d say about books today compared to yesterday. There’s certainly an enormous difference between eras. I plan to keep reading old series books and books about these series. Frankly, it’s fascinating stuff. All of it.
Now I have to ask: Do you ever have an urge to cast an analytical eye down literary memory lane? I’d love to hear!