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March 28, 2010

'Who Is Carolyn Keene?'

March 28, 2010|By Jennifer Fisher
  • Cover of "The Message in the Hollow Oak" 1935 edition.
Cover of "The Message in the Hollow Oak" 1935 edition. (PHOTO CREDIT: TIM HUBBARD/LOS…)

Get a clue -- it's Nancy Drew's 80th birthday and it's time to solve a mystery. Who is Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew mystery stories? And how did it all begin?

It all began with Edward Stratemeyer, a writer and publisher of books for kids. He had so many exciting ideas he didn't have enough time to write them all. So he hired writers called ghosts to bring his stories to life.

The Nancy Drew books were written by ghost writers. Stratemeyer gave all of them the name Carolyn Keene. Who was the first Carolyn Keene?

Her name was Mildred Wirt Benson. She was born in 1905 and grew up in a small town in Iowa. A tomboy, Mildred craved adventure and often joined the boys playing sports. One of her favorite things to do was read. She read everything she could get her hands on from classic books to kids' books like Peter Rabbit and Little Women.

She began to write her own stories and proclaimed, "One day I will be a great writer!" She wrote stories for kids' magazines and submitted them for publication. At age 13, her first piece, "The Courtesy," was published in St. Nicholas magazine and she won a silver badge for it. She was thrilled and determined to write more.

She graduated from high school early and went to college, receiving a degree in English. She became the first woman to graduate from the University of Iowa with a masters in journalism. While she was getting her master's degree, she began writing for Stratemeyer.

Stratemeyer asked Mildred to write "The Secret of the Old Clock" -- the first Nancy Drew book. It began with a 3 1/2 -page outline. It involved many of the spooky elements of a Nancy Drew mystery -- a band of robbers, a secluded cottage, the search for an old clock with a hidden secret, and Nancy Drew using her wits to free herself from a locked closet.

Benson wrote the second and third books in the series -- "The Hidden Staircase" and "The Bungalow Mystery." They were published on April 28, 1930, when Mildred was 24. She would go on to write 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books (volumes 1-7, 11-25 and 30). Nancy Drew became a hit and by 1934 was outselling boys' series like the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. Now, 80 years later, there have been more than 500 Nancy Drew mysteries written and no end in sight for America's favorite teenage sleuth.

Benson went on to write 112 additional children's books and numerous short stories. She worked as a journalist in Ohio from 1944 until age 96 in 2002 when she passed away. Her life was full of thrilling adventures. Not only was she a writer and journalist, she became a pilot, amateur archaeologist and adventurer -- much like Nancy Drew herself.

Nancy Drew books have gone on to inspire many children to dream big and achieve success in life, and so too may they inspire you. Nancy Drew and Mildred wouldn't have it any other way.

Jennifer Fisher is the president and founder of the Nancy Drew Sleuths, an organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the legacy of Nancy Drew. You can visit her website at nancydrewsleuth.com.

Check out reviews of Nancy Drew books in Kids' Book Reviews.

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