Sunday, December 11, 2005

Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

No matter how old you are (or aren't), chances are that if you're female you've read Nancy Drew. In fact, even if you aren't, you may have picked one up. I'm a mystery novel addict, and Nancy Drew contributed to my life-long love of the genre.

Melanie Rehak's nonfiction book, Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, will delight anyone who was ever a fan of Nancy, Bess, George, and their adventures: if you're looking for a gift for a woman who likes to read, this one is probably a winner.

Rehak details the inception of Nancy Drew, invented by Edward Stratemeyer, the head of the Stratemeyer syndicate which mass-produced children's books, and penned at first by Mildred Wirt (later Benson). When Edward died, his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took over the development of the Nancy Drew plot outlines, and Mildred continued to write the books from the outlines the syndicate provided. The two of them contributed inextricably to the development of Nancy Drew as we know her.

A compelling portrait not only ofAmerican children's books publishing throughout the 20th century, but also of the relationship of Nancy Drew to the role of women in American life, Rehak's book stays interesting and lively throughout. Harriet and Mildred ended up at odds with each other, even appearing on opposite sides of a lawsuit between the syndicate and their long-time publisher, Grosset and Dunlap. I found my own reaction to this interesting--I wanted the two of them to get along, to work together and stand up as a collaboration, and I was disappointed that they didn't. Rehak does a good job avoiding any placement of blame; she presents their conflict as something that was probably inevitable given the collaborative nature of the work on Nancy Drew. Both Harriet and Mildred led fascinating lives, and their stories complement each other even if the two women themselves ended up on opposite sides of the argument over just who could claim to be the author of Nancy Drew.

Rehak has a real gift for writing non-fiction; she's one to watch. I look forward to her next project.

Since we're talking about a grown-up discussion of a children's series, how about a grown-up twist on a children's favorite: macaroni and cheese. I know a lot of people who cook, but who've never made their own mac and cheese! People, the stuff in the box isn't even close to what you can make at home, and it's not that hard to make from scratch. Give this version a try: Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese. The squash flavor isn't overpowering (my two tasters couldn't even detect it), but it adds something that at least resembles nutritional value to this festival of cheese and carbs. And the color of the squash makes the dish the same day-glo orange that those of you who eat the mac n cheese that comes in a box are used to (without the overwhelming flavor of preservatives). So if you're nervous about making the transition to home-made mac, this will at least look more normal to you. Go on--it's OK to put away the blue box and try this.