Beyond Nancy Drew: U.S. Girls’ Series Fiction in the Mid-Twentieth Century, 1920-1970

deadline for submissions: 
October 28, 2022
full name / name of organization: 
Emily Hamilton-Honey/SUNY Canton

As the series heroine par excellence, Nancy Drew has taken up most of the scholarly attention surrounding mid-century U.S. girls’ series, and for good reason given her popularity, longevity, and feminist leanings. Running from 1930 into the present day, Nancy has been foiling criminals for nearly a century, first as a spunky blond driving a roadster and then as a versatile  titian-haired girl in a convertible. However, Nancy and her heroics do not occur in either a publishing or a temporal vacuum; debuting during the Great Depression, Nancy succeeds the series heroines of the teens and twenties, and in the following decades exists alongside college and career girls of the thirties and forties, television heroines of the fifties and sixties who are translated to fiction, and other girl sleuths of all stripes who attempt to rival Nancy in her mystery-solving acumen. Nancy is arguably not as daring or feminist as her World War I predecessors, but her social and economic focus is entirely different: trying to recover lost fortunes and stolen inheritances during the Great Depression accomplishes very different social ends than fighting Germans on an international stage. On the other hand, as Nancy keeps up with the changing decades and her rival heroines, she perhaps–but only perhaps–outstrips the heroines who follow her.

It is our intent with this anthology to recover some of these “lost” heroines of mid-twentieth century U.S. series fiction. We hope to not only set Nancy Drew in her proper historical and sociocultural context, but also move beyond her and invite critical examination of the many heroines who have not been written about adequately–or at all. These include Donna Parker, Ginny Gordon, Dorothy Dixon, Penny Parker, Beverly Gray, Madge Morton, Vicki Barr, the Blythe Girls, Connie Blair, Linda Carlton, Peggy Lane, Penny Nichols, and Trudy Phillips, to name only a few. These mid-century books mark a cultural shift from the series books of World War I and before; cultural gender ideologies from the 1920s onward shift significantly. They move even farther toward consumerism in their promotion of girls as good consumers, and in some ways promote more conservative goals for girls in the social and professional arena (e. g,. earlier marriage and training in more of the service and white collar professions), and yet they also raise important questions about fairness, equality, and social justice, albeit in different ways than their predecessors would have.

Just as importantly, many mid-20th-century series contain troubling depictions of people of color and equally troubling examples of the systemic racism of the time, most of which has been left unexamined and thus uncritiqued. Scholars have begun to unpack these problems in the Little House series, as one example, which was published in the 1930s and 1940s, but the Dorothy Dixon and Beverly Gray series from the same decades contain extensive examples of anti-Asian racism that has not been discussed or problematized. Similarly, there has been no examination of the Tollivers series, which is the one Stratemeyer Syndicate series to feature a Black family. Three volumes were published in 1967, but the series was not continued and has been generally forgotten–though it had one of the first depictions of Black teens in series fiction. It is also worth examining how many villains in these books are people of color and Others of all kinds, to what degree these series succeed or fail at diversity and inclusivity, and to what degree the books’ heroines are implicated in that success or failure.

In sum, we invite you to answer the question:  What successes, and failures, do girls’ series have in this timeframe holistically?  What ought we be discussing beyond Nancy Drew?

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Mid-century series with real-life celebrities as the main characters (e.g., Deanna Durbin, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Annette Funicello, The Lennon Sisters, Patty Duke).

  • Careers for women as depicted in mid-century series (e.g., Cherry Ames, Vicki Barr, Beverley Gray).

  • Other girl sleuths: Penny Nichols, Penny Parker, Arden Blake, The Dana Girls, Kay Tracey, Dorothy Dixon, Ginny Gordon, Connie Blair.

  • Similarities and differences between the Ginny Gordon series and the first six volumes of Trixie Belden, all of which were written by Julie Campbell Tatham.

  • The differences in nurse training as depicted in Cherry Ames and Sue Barton. 

  • The interconnections between Cherry Ames, and Vicki Barr, since authorial duties were shared and swapped between Helen Wells and Julie Campbell Tatham.

  • Similarities and differences between Penny Parker and Ginny Gordon, both high school girls with fathers who own newspapers.

  • How are girls’ series in this time period also predicated on the ability and/or right to consume? Does it matter who has money to consume? What and how they consume? 

  • An examination of the Tollivers series, the only Stratemeyer Syndicate series to ever feature a Black family.

  • Anti-Asian racism in the Dorothy Dixon and/or Beverly Gray series

  • To what degree hostile depictions of racial Others correspond with political and social hostility toward those groups in the U.S. 

  • Comparisons between Girls’ Series and other Children’s Series like the Boxcar Series and the Bobbsey Twins Series that were also popular during this timeframe.

  • The historical context of the series. How does a particular series reflect, change, and/or adapt to a particular timeframe, and why?

  • How do these series fit into the realm of children’s and young adult literature as a genre?  How ought they be recovered and thought about in the field of literary studies?

  • What morals are these series’ teaching their audiences?  Are they reflecting or rejecting previous values in the series’ fiction genre legacy?

Please send proposals of 250-300 words and a brief CV to Dr. Emily Hamilton-Honey and Dr. LuElla D’Amico at Deadline for proposals is October 28, 2022; drafts will be due by May 1, 2023; finished chapters of 6,000-9,000 words will be due by August 1, 2023.