Special Collections and University Archives

No other girls’ series can match the popularity and durability of “Carolyn Keene’s” Nancy Drew books. So endearing are these books to generations of young readers that many even today believe that a single author by the name of “Carolyn Keene” wrote the more than 170 titles that have appeared since 1930. Not so! “Carolyn Keene” was a “syndicate name” used by the many writers who penned these volumes. Wikipedia states that twenty-eight authors accounted for the series up until 1984, but this number may be low. The earliest ones were ostensibly written by Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate that produced so many of the most popular series books for boys and girls in the early twentieth century. Stratemeyer’s daughters, Harriet and Edna, also wrote a number of early titles. The name most commonly linked with “Carolyn Keene” and Nancy Drew is that of Mildred Wirt, who probably wrote more of the Nancy Drews than any other single author, though it is not entirely clear just how many titles she authored. It is probable that some titles had joint authors.

-Dr. WIlliam K. Finley

An Exhibit
Hodges Reading Room
February 15 – May 15, 2010

  1. Edward Stratemeyer did not personally write any of the Nancy Drew stories. He wrote about 160 stories that were published as books plus many more for periodicals. In 1905 he established the Stratemeyer Syndicate to produce juvenile series books from his outlines through the use of ghostwriters.

    Before he died on May 10, 1930, Edward outlined the first four Nancy Drew volumes and made a brief proposal about the fifth to the publisher, Grosset & Dunlap. He may not have seen the published volumes for the first three Nancy Drew books when they were released on April 28, 1930 before he took ill.

    After he died his daughters, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Edna C. Stratemeyer, settled his estate and then learned enough about the business from his assistant to begin to run the company in late summer 1930.

    At first, the daughters followed their father's pattern and did not write the full books. Edna left New Jersey in 1942 but before doing so had written one of the Kay Tracey volumes. Harriet's first book-length manuscript was a Bobbsey Twins issued in 1943. Some years later she was working on the Nancy Drew and other girls' series and became the sole writer for them.

    For the period when ghostwriters were used, it is important to note the distinction between owning a story created in a work for hire situation (the "author" in the eyes of copyright law) and the person who put pen to paper or composed on a typewriter to write the bulk of a story.

    The ghostwriters signed releases to transfer all rights to the Syndicate. They were paid promptly and fairly well for their work when compared with other writing opportunities of the period, including selling outright to publishers (common) or doing work as a newspaper reporter.

    The releases meant that the Syndicate owned the stories, could determine who published them, etc.

    The outlines produced by Edward and his daughters were vitally important to the success of the series. The Syndicate had a good sense of what their publishers and the public wanted from these books and they delivered good stories most of the time. Some of the series flopped, including a temperance-themed White Ribbon Boys series which lasted one volume and an African-American imitation of the Happy Hollisters called the Tollivers series. This series lasted just the three initial volumes in the "breeder set." These books are hard to find today because of the low sales originally though one entrepreneur is reprinting the White Ribbon Boys of Chester in a limited edition.

    Mildred A. Wirt, later Mildred Wirt Benson, was the first ghostwriter for Nancy Drew and she worked on many of the early volumes. Readers who learn about her work as a newspaper reporter and her independence see some of these same qualities in Nancy Drew. However, she was limited by the Syndicate outlines and editing as to what she could put in a story. The outlines were fairly long and detailed so little room was left at times for a ghostwriter's creativity.

    Two recent resources on Nancy Drew are Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak and Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths. The latter contains a chapter of mine called "The Nancy Drew MYTHtery Stories." It tries to sift through the legends about Stratemeyer, the Syndicate, and the origins of Nancy Drew.

    James D. Keeline

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