Full disclosure: I probably didn’t read more than two or three Judy Blume books. And that was 30 years ago. So maybe they were as “revolutionary” as a blurb I read today claims. But they never resonated for me.
I knew plenty of girls who found and lost and found themselves in those books but I could never relate. I vaguely remember a book about getting your period or wearing a bra. My friends and I talked about that stuff but I didn’t find it compelling enough to carry a whole novel. Then again neither was The Babysitters’ Club but I read every single book in that series.
The real intrigue was in mysteries. I was too young for Agatha Christie but I blazed through every single Nancy Drew book in our school library.
Our public library doesn’t limit the number of books you can check out. I was deeply envious of my neighbors when they brought their laundry baskets on one summer trip to the library. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Laundry basket or not I cleaned them out too.
Of all the YA novels I read well into middle school no one kept me captivated like Nancy Drew. There were standalone stories that held my imagination hostage like Hatchett but no other character endured like a James Bond for preteens.
She was brave, ambitious, smart and talented. She was shrewd with uncanny instincts other people trusted and relied on. She was admired and respected for her abilities. And being a career-driven young woman didn’t keep her from having a boyfriend. She didn’t have to choose.
Not that I was thinking in these terms in elementary school but the clever protagonist making all the decisions and doing all of the plot-driving executive functioning was female.
There was no character arc for her, per se. As an iconic hero, her character was well defined without a hero’s journey per story. She didn’t need to overcome obstacles to become herself. Both iconic heroes and epic heroes can be role models. But in The Case of the Female Detective, not being singularly defined by overcoming uniquely female obstacles allowed us to explore her adventures, not her gender. Sexual politics didn’t define her try/fail cycles. The case did.
To use a term that the snowflake-haters likely also hate, she was post-feminist. She solved mysteries in a world where she was valued for her talent as a detective, rather than having to prove her worth as a woman. She established herself by her accomplishments — the truest meritocracy.
When I was in elementary school I was just a bookworm devouring Nancy Drew books faster than they could print them. I didn’t know she was a trailblazer. I just knew she was worth getting in trouble for so I stayed up past bedtime and read with my flashlight under the covers. Likely why I have to wear reading glasses now but as a little girl I traveled the world with a truly autonomous young woman who never bothered to mention her period. She was too busy traveling to France and Costa Rica, Istanbul and Nairobi — exhilaratingly faraway places I could barely imagine as a child, yet coincidentally places I would have the fortunate opportunity to visit as an adult. But never to solve crimes.
Being a tourist will never be as cool as being a detective. But Nancy Drew’s independence showed us everything we could do with our own passion. And for everything we can’t, there’s a vicarious thrill in reading about those who can.