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Grosset & Dunlap

Before there was Bella, Ramona or even Kristy and the Baby-sitter's Club gang, there was Nancy.

Nancy Drew, that is.

Eighty years ago, Nancy made her debut in "The Secret of the Old Clock" by Carolyn Keene, and in the process, she became a symbol of strength and ingenuity for young women the world over.

But what most people don't know is that Carolyn Keene wasn't a real person, and that Nancy's creator — Edward Stratemeyer — was a man.

Nancy Drew started as a proposal by Stratemeyer to a publisher — in this case, Grosset & Dunlap, which is now part of Penguin publishers.

Through his Stratemeyer Syndicate, Stratemeyer produced a number of long-running book series — including the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys — using a team of freelance writers to write the books, which were published under a pen name owned by his company.

In the case of Nancy Drew, Stratemeyer and the publisher agreed on the name Carolyn Keene, though exactly why they chose the name is a mystery, said Nancy Drew consultant Jennifer Fisher. But the publisher did pick the name Nan Drew from a list and then lengthened her first name to Nancy.

When it comes to the classic series of 56 Nancy Drew books, there were eight ghostwriters — five women and three men. But two women — Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams — wrote most of the books.

Benson was the first ghostwriter, and Adams was Stratemeyer's daughter who took over the company when her father died.

"Both of them were so strong themselves, strong, feisty, independent women, and that just spilled into the books," said Nadine Topalian, vice president and associate publisher of Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan.

No matter who was writing for the series, the authors would always use the same pen name, and ghostwriters signed releases saying they couldn't use the pen names for themselves, said Fisher, who in addition to consulting on Nancy Drew projects, runs a fan group and a Nancy Drew website, nancydrewsleuth.com.

Adams went back through books 1-34 and redid all of them, so they are very cohesive, Topalian said. "I don't think you'd ever really be able to tell that there were that many writers across the series."

Over the past 80 years, none of the books in the classic series have ever been out of print. Which begs the question, why is this girl sleuth from the '30s still so popular?

Other girls series and detective heroines have come and gone, said both Fisher and Topalian, but the nostalgia of Nancy Drew, the passing down of the books through mothers and grandmothers to their daughters and nieces, have helped her character endure over the years.

"As our generation grows up, I know that if I have any daughters, I'm going to pass on Nancy Drew," said Topalian, who remembers absolutely loving the books as a child. "Not only do you have this great series, but you have this built-in brand awareness and nostalgia driving it."

One of the beautiful things about Nancy is, she's so timeless, Topalian said. "Her character traits — her intelligence, her independence, her strength — all of that is so appealing still. She hasn't really aged. Those qualities that made her such a hit back then are those qualities that drive people to her today."

When Nancy Drew first arrived, that kind of character, that kind of strength didn't really exist in the children's book marketplace, Topalian said. It was something very new and refreshing, and people gravitated toward it.

The series came out about 10 years after the right to vote, and at that time, girls were probably ready for something different, Fisher said.

And Nancy was very different. She wasn't domesticated. She was out having adventures instead. "That was probably thrilling to kids at that time," Fisher said. "The message in the books is self-reliance. A lot of times, Nancy Drew had to rely on herself. She had to use her wits to get out of sticky situations."

While many have considered Nancy a feminist ahead of her time, Topalian says she's always identified the character as less of a feminist and more of a problem-solver.

"She wasn't actually behind any kind of women's movement," Topalian said. "I think that is what is so appealing. Because as a woman growing up and working your way through the ranks, you actually don't want to think of yourself as a woman, you just want to think of yourself as a person. It's incredibly empowering that she isn't really particularly a feminist, she's just this independent person with a lot of freedom doing her own thing."

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And though Nancy Drew's true heyday has come and gone, Grosset continues to sell 1 million copies of the Classic Nancy Drew titles each year, proving that Nancy's independence still resonates with readers young and old.

The essence of Nancy Drew — an adventurous, bold, independent sleuth who is a good role model, who likes to right wrongs and help people — is still around today. "I think that basic message is still very inspiring to kids," Fisher said. "As is the excitement of solving the mysteries next to Nancy."

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com