Nancy Drew and the case of the redheaded reading inspiration
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My interest in reading for pleasure was sparked by an “attractive girl of eighteen.”
It all started when our fifth-grade English teacher shepherded the class to the school library. Upon seeing the 30-odd girls marching into her quiet sanctum, the librarian got up from her desk, exchanged pleasantries with the English teacher, and introduced herself to the class.
“Today, you’re going to pick from among those books,” said the librarian as she motioned towards a long desk groaning with reading matter. “You’ll read your chosen book and write a book report about it.”
As soon as the teacher gave her signal, the girls scrambled for the “easy books,” the ones with fewer pages and cute covers. The Baby-Sitters Club books were gone in an instant. So were the Beverly Clearys. Once the bundle had been picked clean only a few “intimidating” titles remained. You know the ones, the classics that required a dictionary by your side to read, like “Anne of Green Gables,” “The Swiss Family Robinson,” and “Kidnapped.” As one of the last to approach the table, I pretended not to notice them. I was saved from the wretched fate of slogging through “The Hobbit” by a lone Nancy Drew Mystery that had surprisingly remained untaken.
At 11 years old, I was yet to read my first chapter book. I’d at least heard of Nancy Drew. Copies of the teen detective mysteries changed hands among the smarter girls of the class. The more precocious ones preferred Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams. I preferred nothing. Not the Bobbsey Twins nor the Wildfire Romances. Not the Mills & Boons that my older cousins liked to read. Not even, sigh, Nancy Drew.
Here’s the thing when you’re not in the habit of reading: even books written for your grade level could be challenging. It didn’t help that English wasn’t my first language. Taking my first crack at “The Clue in the Crossword Cipher,” I reached for the family’s Webster’s Dictionary to search for the word “cipher.” The unfamiliar terms came at me right from the first chapter: “titian,” “gouge,” “precarious,” “antithesis, “unobtrusively” “wistful,” “effigy,” “accomplice,” “vehemently” and “sleuth”(!), just for starters. My father, who had bought the hard-bound dictionary from G. Miranda a year before, was amused to find me diligently poring over it.
Reading a real book was slow-going in the beginning, but soon I started to get the hang of it. I imagined being in the shoes of an “attractive girl of eighteen” who has a boyfriend and two girl besties, a successful lawyer for a father, and the means to fly to Peru at the drop of a hat, in order to solve a mystery that has the adults flummoxed. I cared about what happens to Nancy and her friends as they try to outsmart a ring of vicious smugglers intent on stealing a precious artifact. Nancy gets nearly sucked out of an airplane and then later survives a bomb explosion without a scratch on her! Girl leads a charmed life. And which girl wouldn’t want that kind of life?
I finished the book and wrote my report ahead of the deadline. At the library to return the book, I picked up another Nancy Drew mystery. Could this really be me? Borrowing a book to read from the library out of my own volition? There was no denying it: a new world had been opened to me by the gorgeous titian-haired sleuth from River Heights, Illinois.
I read my second Nancy Drew book a little faster that I’d read the first. Then it was on to my next mystery, and then another one after that. I didn’t realize it at first, but as I read more, I was reaching for the dictionary less and less frequently. I had also stopped dreading the composition exercises in English class. By the fourth quarter of fifth grade, I had impressed my teacher with the marked improvement in my composition outputs.
The mysteries of the world unraveled themselves to me through Nancy Drew’s travels. I learned the Nazca lines may have been an ancient agricultural calendar of sorts, that the Tam O’ Shanter legend still spooked many Scots, and that “gargoyle” is derived from a medieval French word meaning gurgle or gargle.
Growing up in a time of five TV channels and no Internet, the children of my generation learned of the world mostly through books and foreign TV series. Sure, many of those were escapist fare with politically incorrect ideas, but, as my Dad used to say, “You take what you can get.” Which is more than what we can say about the Nancy Drew Mystery series. It’s really no mystery that, despite the outdated language and time-worn stereotypes, the pleasure of reading a Nancy Drew is as timeless as ever.