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Nancy Drew & Asking if Our Childhood Characters Should Grow Up With Us

There are few things more nostalgic than the characters and fictional worlds that shaped our childhoods. Younger versions of ourselves created images of friends in our minds, framed by the writers that so carefully crafted an environment worth spending time in. At least, this was the case for me. One of my best friends in childhood was the teenaged girl sleuth, Nancy Drew. She was unlike other girls I’d read about and possessed a confidence that I had yet to develop. Nancy employed a great deal of common sense and was uncompromising in nature; one could clearly see the values she was endowed with, such as grace, hospitality, steadfastness in devotion to ethics, and self-sacrifice.

 Throughout the years since her creation, Nancy has gone through multiple transformations, her appearance made to mirror that of culture’s as it changes. She has been portrayed as a college student navigating date rape and potential pregnancies, a gap-year Maine resident who just lost her mother, and a highschool-aged youngster solving small-scale crime. Some of these pay homage to the original better than others, and in some Nancy is near-unrecognizable—unfortunate for the die-hard nostalgics, but lauded by those wishing to see a familiar character in current, comfortable settings.

Photo Credit: AZcentral

Origins of a Teen-aged Sleuth

Mildred A. Wirt Benson, primary ghostwriter for the original Nancy Drew mysteries, endeavored to create a character who was not “namby pamby” like other typically portrayed female characters at the time (the 1930s), and what she created was a feisty, carefully described, titian-haired teen who loved solving mysteries. Nancy was straightforward, resourceful, talented, and someone my twelve-year-old self believed to be the epitome of female teen-hood. I once received a box full of yellow hardcover books from a generous woman who (I imagine) hoped to introduce me to a character she had come to love. I devoured them one at a time, reading them so consistently that one of the cashiers at our local BI-LO tended to comment when I didn’t have my face glued to one; she’d chuckle and say that it was out of character.

As I’ve grown older, my hungry desire for more Nancy Drew books has turned into gentle reminiscence and nostalgia. My capacity for learning has outgrown the series, and these books no longer satiate my curiosity. They don’t have the same appeal now as they did when I was a child. Gently placing the yellow books back on the shelf, I moved on to Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Sherlock Holmes, and novels by Agatha Christie. Yet, every now and then I felt a tug back toward them. It’s hard to let a friend go. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned that there were PC games associated with my beloved heroine.

Photo Credit: Nancy Drew Games Wiki

Digital Codes and Clues

November 23rd, 1998, Her Interactive released the first of many Nancy Drew PC games, Secrets Can Kill. The 34th game in the series was just recently announced and is currently in development. The series employs first person POV and the charm of a beloved heroine to educate younger generations in culture, geography, general life skills, and niche talents that public schools don’t typically train their students in. I had to learn Morse code for these games. 

On top of this, I learned about marine biology, weather patterns, Greek history and folklore, Japanese culture and bento boxes, how to navigate subways, problem solving skills, Irish history and folklore, baking, gardening, the Salem Witch Trials, Mayan legends and history, dusting for fingerprints, customer service, and good old-fashioned gumption. These games were a formative part of my childhood, and they continue to be relevant in my adulthood as I spend time with my younger sisters and seek to encourage in them the same love that I held for most things Nancy Drew. As I grew older and my tastes in literature shifted, I stumbled upon the different spin-offs of Nancy Drew, and, subsequently, their inherent worldviews.

Photo Credit: Seat42F

Lost in Translation

The first episode of the first season of CW’s Nancy Drew, a series that first aired in 2019, begins with the titular character knocking boots with her boyfriend.

Not the introduction I expected.

CW’s Nancy Drew is currently airing its last season, and the titular character now finds herself in the midst of a love triangle, grappling with a deadly curse, and dealing with heavy, adult problems. Her character lacks the static, consistent nature of the 1930’s Nancy, and life is a bit grimmer in this world.

When I first learned that CW was making a show about Nancy Drew (the tenth time developers have adapted the original books for on-screen media), I was ecstatic. CW seemed to be creating a Nancy who was true to the original, simply translated to the now. Upon learning more about the show, however, I realized that this translation reconstructed Nancy’s lifestyle, maturity, and perspective, not just her surroundings and context. She resembled a young adult having a coming of age, a type that is popular in current media, and she engaged with the corrupt on a more intimate level. CW’s writers opted for relatability and the opportunity to identify with an increasingly experimental, knowledgeable generation. In choosing these, they sacrificed Nancy’s innocence and traded it for relevance — a tragedy for the truly reminiscent and any wishing for a virtuous role model.

Photo Credit: The Poughkeepsie Journal

Wisdom Found in Consistency

An article in the Guardian, entitled Harry Potter and the curse of middle age: should fictional children ever grow up? discusses whether or not children characters should make the jump to adulthood. Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider series, writes:

“Curiously, I once flirted with the idea of re-examining my own hero, Alex Rider, in his late 20s. He wouldn’t exactly be old, but he would certainly be a wreck, psychologically damaged by all the terrible adventures I’d put him through. I saw him in the opening chapter, waking up in a dirty, crumpled bed in a shabby room, rolling over and lighting two cigarettes; one for himself, one for the woman he was sleeping with. My publishers told me, politely, that it was a terrible idea. And they were right.”

Some characters are simply not translatable. Or, at least, their virtue does not survive the migration into a contemporary cultural mold. Childhood characters are often points of nostalgia. These points can be (and often are) exploited and used as anchor sites to which storytellers attach sociopolitical or religious ideologies. Thus, writers are tempted to use the “shells” of the original characters and fill them with more progressive perspectives that are gaining popularity in our current culture. In this process, the substance of original characters is gutted and replaced with qualities that are more appealing to current moral sensibilities. This departure from the originals creates a dissonance. We see semblances of old friends when, in actuality, they are entirely new characters.

My preference will always be for the original Nancy and the adaptations that resemble her most closely. Perhaps what I like most about the original­­—and Her Interactive’s games—is the integrity and virtue that pervades Nancy’s character. The PC games consistently encourage individuals to be curious in healthy contexts. The Nancy Drew of the 1930s is as timeless as she is intelligent and well-meaning. As for CW’s Nancy Drew, their rendition may be my go-to if I’m looking for a quick adrenaline rush or mystery-infused romcom, but it will never equate to the original. It doesn’t take a detective to recognize a departure from innocence.

Emeri attends Liberty University, where she serves as the social media and website manager and podcast co-host for her university’s student newspaper, the Liberty Champion. In addition to being a fangirl of Tomb Raider, she enjoys rock climbing, traveling in Asia and Europe, and having meaningful conversations over boba! You can find her on Instagram @emerileighton

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