Who Says Nancy Drew Is Only a 1-Dimensional Character?!

I loved reading Nancy Drew mysteries as a child. So it came as a shock to me as a adult many years ago as a new student to children’s writing to be told by my writing professor that Nancy Drew was emphatically NOT a three dimensional character. WHAT?! Of course she is! I read all of her escapades in the 3rd grade and she was so deeply dimensional I could tell you anything you wanted to know about her, thanks to Carolyn Keene’s great depiction of her. Then came blow number 2. My professor had no mercy when he informed me “Carolyn Keene” didn’t exist – ‘she’ was a ‘them’ – a group of writers who wrote the formulaic Nancy Drew mysteries under the made-up name of Carolyn Keene.

I was devastated. Shocked. In complete denial. He announced this heresy during the first few weeks of his children’s writing class and I was a complete newbie then, not having written any children’s stories since I was a kid myself. Ha, clearly he didn’t know anything about children’s book! He didn’t know what he was talking about!

I argued with him vehemently, while my classmates remained mute — no help in the developing debate was forthcoming from them – they simply watched with mild interest and amused expressions. I didn’t think this was funny! Though I couldn’t name it, something sacred was at stake here as I countered the professor at every turn, all the passion of childhood memories fueling my arguments. But professor wouldn’t back down a nit. He just grinned at my ignorance and finally we moved on to something else. I left the class in disbelief at how ignorant he was! He couldn’t teach children’s writing!

Convinced of this, I picked up an old Nancy Drew on my shelf (I still have many), and began reading. Uh-oh.

Thus, I entered phase two of my Nancy-Drew-undoing. I read along with determination. But I still remember the dream crashing down as I came across a sentence that said something very close to, “Nancy and Ned went to a party that evening and were well liked by all their friends.”

Hmm. That did give me pause. My child’s mind reading a sentence like that didn’t blink an eye, but as an adult, I had to admit it was presumptively shallow. As were many other descriptive lines. And darn it, yes, the rest of the book followed suit. And, when I pulled other books in the series off my shelves, they did indeed all have similar patterns – completely formulaic. How could all those “Carolyns” so callously commit such a travesty? Nancy Drew was as 1 dimensional as a paper doll (albeit with a more exciting life)!

The funny thing was, while in one sense my childhood memory of Nancy Drew books crumbled in a bit of a heap, I still found myself enjoying the book as a adult, shallow though it was in terms of true and deep character development. First, because I’ll always love a mystery no matter what, but even more, because it brought back such good memories. I started to remember those days of reading Nancy Drew mysteries, and how much the stories came alive to me. My joining her mystery-solving journeys filled with danger and intrigue were very real to me and my “mature” eye could still readily see why this was so.

Then I realized why I fought so hard to defend Nancy’s three – or at least two! – dimensionalism (you know what I mean). It was because she was a character of great dimension in my mind. Good ‘ole Bess and George, I was her companion too on all of their adventures, mishaps and surprises. She and her friends had come alive off those pages, striding vividly right into my 8-year-old imagination. Of COURSE they were dimensional characters – because I had made them so. The same way every child does who identifies with beloved characters. I still do this. There’s no convincing me that Middle Earth doesn’t really exist. I guess that’s the beauty of the magic that crosses from the words on a page into the space between our ears and on into our hearts.

So, here’s to you, Nancy! You ARE, after all, well liked by all your friends!

Epilogue: My children’s literature instructor ultimately became the greatest writing instructor I ever had. I, and many of my classmates took all of his classes throughout our studies. I’d not be the writer I am today without him….so I owe him a ton and forgive him for his lambast on Nancy Drew — which was the first of many times he challenged me to dig deeper and ponder story telling from new places.