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Carolyn Keene: Biography, Books & Facts

Instructor: Colleen Bramucci

Colleen has taught secondary school and has a master's degree in teaching.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the original ghostwriter behind the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, the author of the much beloved children's mystery series Nancy Drew, as well as a brief history of the series as a whole.

The Girl Detective

While many young people today credit Harry Potter with sparking their interest in reading, Nancy Drew did the same for youngsters - particularly girls - after her debut in 1930. Many of these avid readers, who spent nights staying up past bedtime with a flashlight under the bedcovers, passed on their affection for Nancy to their children and grandchildren.

Now nearly 85 years old, Nancy Drew remains one of the most enduring and iconic characters in American literature. Though primarily geared towards children ages 9-12, the girl detective's appeal continues, as the first book in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, sold more than 150,000 copies in 2002 alone. In the current climate of social media and instant fame, it's hard to imagine that the original author behind such a well-known character remains largely unknown herself. Yet that is the case of the ghostwriter responsible for breathing life into Nancy Drew.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate

Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of children's books and founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, created numerous children's and young adult series, including the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and Ruth Fielding. As the 1920s ended, Stratemeyer had an idea for a series about a girl detective. Though he wrote the multiple-page outlines for the first number of volumes, Stratemeyer hired ghostwriters to flesh out the stories and make the characters come to life. The common practice of hiring ghostwriters contractually required the Stratemeyer Syndicate ghostwriters to remain anonymous. For this reason, while many Americans might be able to identify Carolyn Keene as the author of the Nancy Drew series, few may know that this is actually a pen name, or pseudonym.

Mildred Wirt Benson

Perhaps the most well-known real person behind the Carolyn Keene pseudonym is Mildred (Augustine) Wirt Benson. Benson was born in Ladora, Iowa, in 1905. From an early age, she knew she wanted to be a writer, winning a writing contest at age 14 and writing children's stories as a youngster herself. She became the first woman to receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. It was during her graduate studies that she submitted a manuscript to the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Stratemeyer hired Mildred Augustine in 1926 to write the final volume in the Ruth Fielding series. She was then hired to write the first Nancy Drew book, The Secret of the Old Clock, published in 1930. The work earned her $125.

Much of Nancy Drew's high-spirited, adventure-loving ways can be seen in the life of Mildred Wirt Benson. Benson was a tomboy who loved to read, and she blazed a trail in her educational and professional accomplishments. She remained an active writer throughout her life, writing her own children's series called the Penny Parker Mystery Stories. In addition to writing, Benson earned her commercial and private pilot's license, leading to many adventures traveling through different parts of the world. Benson was well known throughout the Midwest as a journalist, working for both The Toledo Times and The Toledo Blade, for which wrote a column until shortly before her death in 2002.

Benson's identity as the author of many of the original Nancy Drew books came to light in 1980 during a lawsuit involving the original publisher of the series. Until then, she had remained silent under the provisions of the contract with Stratemeyer and never received any royalties from publication, merchandising, or television or movie deals. After Edward Stratemeyer's death, his daughters Edna and Harriet took over the business, and continued to write the outlines for the Nancy Drew books. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams became more heavily involved when, in the late 1950s, she undertook a 25-year rewrite of the original 30 volumes, in an attempt to eliminate racial stereotypes and update and shorten the books in general.

In 1993, the first Nancy Drew Conference was held in Iowa City, Iowa, during which the legal owners of Nancy Drew - Simon & Schuster and Grosset & Dunlap - acknowledged Mildred Wirt Benson as the author of volumes 1-7, 11-25, and 30 of the original 30 volumes in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series.

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