How Youth Literature Became Big Business
The Many Pens Behind Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Other Youth Fiction Heroes
Juvenile literature is big business. Of the top 10 most successful authors of all time – both in terms of books sold and total revenue generated – three wrote for young audiences. Those titans of youth fiction include Britain’s Enid Blyton, illustrator/cartoonist-turned-writer Dr. Seuss, and, of course, Harry Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling, whose book sales surpass all but those of William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and a few other long-established authors, including Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele and Harold Robbins.
Today, the names of successful writers of youth-oriented literature – Stephenie Meyer, Veronica Roth, etc. – are virtual “brands” of their own and known the world over. But there was a time when book publishers owned the authors’ invented names and used salaried, in-house ghostwriters to pen the riveting tales of young but confident characters like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the earliest protagonists of the late-19th/early 20th-century adolescent-fiction genre: the Rover Boys. The writers were interchangeable, but the tone of each series remained remarkably consistent throughout.
The first book packager to aim its books at children rather than adults was the Stratemeyer Syndicate, founded by New Jersey publisher Edward Stratemeyer. A national survey conducted in 1922 revealed that, by far, most books read at leisure by American children were titles produced by Stratemeyer.
What made Stratemeyer’s books different was their focus on entertainment, as opposed to moral instruction. Children could tap into their imaginations and mentally immerse themselves into the adventures of sci-fi savant Tom Swift or boarding school sleuths the Dana Girls, or for the very young, the Bobbsey Twins.
No fewer than 15 ghostwriters produced the hugely successful Nancy Drew books under the pen name “Carolyn Keene,” although Mildred Wirt (later Mildred Wirt Benson) is credited as having been the principal writer. The writers initially were paid $125 for each book and were required by their contract to relinquish all rights to their work and to maintain confidentiality. That’s a far cry from, say, J.K. Rowling’s lucrative deals, which have led to her astounding net worth of an estimated $750 million.
The Stratemeyer series of books about teenage detective Nancy Drew began in 1930 with The Secret of the Old Clock. It was followed with a new book release every year for the next 26 years. A joint publishing venture between Stratemeyer and Grosset & Dunlap added 21 more titles from 1959 through 1979, followed by the last 22 books of the series, which were issued as a Stratemeyer/Simon & Schuster collaboration, from 1979 through 1985.
A cultural icon, Nancy Drew is cited as a formative influence by a number of successful women, from Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Sonia Sotomayor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush. Feminist literary critics have analyzed the character’s enduring appeal, arguing variously that Nancy Drew is a mythic hero, an expression of wish fulfillment, or an embodiment of contradictory ideas about femininity.
Where Nancy Drew appealed mostly to girls, amateur detectives Frank and Joe Hardy – the Hardy Boys – attracted a mostly male readership. Like the Nancy Drew books, which all carried the Carolyn Keene byline, the Hardy Boys titles were created by a number of different ghostwriters who used the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. Nineteen of the first 25 Hardy Boys books were the work of Canadian journalist Leslie McFarlane. The series enjoyed a long original-print run lasting from 1927 through 2005. Worldwide, more than 70 million copies of Hardy Boys books have been sold, and the first title of the series, The Tower Treasure, still sells over 100,000 copies per year worldwide.
Both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have reappeared in other forms of entertainment, including feature films, TV shows, board games, and video games. But to collectors, the most imaginative way to experience their teen heroes’ adventures is still through a book from the original series, especially with the colorful dust jacket still intact.