Heroes
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piles of booksMy daughter, Kristine, reads constantly. The day I originally wrote this little essay, she was, in fact, sitting in the living room reading Lord of the Rings with a stack of history books and Jane Austen-related material next to her chair. She got her exercise by walking to the library and lugging home books. This makes her My Hero.

On one of her library safaris, she introduced me to another writer who has also become My Hero. She did it by bringing home from the library a book about a very particular publishing phenomenon—series children’s books. There were a number of writers who gave their talents to this effort, but the paragon that stood out in my reading of the book was Mildred A. Wirt, the original Carolyn Keene. (The title, for anyone who’s interested is Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak.)

I expect that most women reading this know that byline. Carolyn Keene was the author of record for the Nancy Drew Mystery series that most of us grew up with—that girls are still growing up with and which, after repeated tries to bring Nancy into the new age or to make her adhere to modern assumptions about what girls want to read, has reverted back to the character she was when the inestimable Ms. Wirt was writing her.

So, why is Mildred Wirt My Hero? It’s not just that she wrote 23 volumes of the Nancy Drew series. It was that she also wrote:

Kay Tracey (as Frances K. Judd)
Penny Parker (as Mildred A. Wirt)
Dana Girls (as Carolyn Keene)
Penny Nichols (as Joan Clark)
Connie Carl (as Joan Clark)
Madge Sterling (as Ann Wirt)

It was that in her most prolific year, 1939, she wrote nine novels. She wrote when she was pregnant, raising a child, caring for a sick husband and sustaining his loss, dealing with her own health problems. She wrote from spartan outlines and from very detailed ones—both of which can be a blessing or a curse for a writer. She dealt with editors who were disengaged from her issues and who were jealous of their creations. She worked under wraps—sworn to secrecy about her involvement with the books she wrote—and reacted with measured calm when others took credit for her work. (Since I also ghostwrite for a living, I understand what this feels like better than I’d like to).

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Millie Wirt could fly a plane, climb a mountain, paddle the Amazon. She could be self-confident yet self-effacing, assertive yet measured, bold yet polite—even in the face of unjust criticism. She was a journalist, too, who worked until the age of 96, using a magnifying lens so as to be able to see the computer display. She turned in her last column one evening in May of 2002, went home and died that night. If that’s not dying in harness, I don’t know what is.

BENSON__t440All of that is why she is My Hero. She exemplified something science fiction writer and fellow MAFIA (Making Appearances Frequently In Analog) member Michael Flynn wrote years ago about how writers deal with the changes and chances of the material world. I can’t quote him verbatim, but I can paraphrase and condense his comments thusly: If the world around you seems to be going mad, keep writing. If the sky is falling and you have no means to prop it up, keep writing. If things are splodey-sploding all around you, keep writing.

It’s what writers do.

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Heroes — 6 Comments

  1. I owe Ms. Writ a great debt of gratitude. I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on, starting with an original edition of The Old Attic (don’t I wish I had it now!). For years, they were my standard Christmas and birthday presents. Thanks for bringing back all those memories, Maya, and for letting me know about the extraordinary woman who wrote the books. And yay for your daughter, too!

  2. Wow, what a terrific woman!

    I remember fondly reading Nancy Drew books under the table all during the second half of sixth grade. One of the girls in our class had rich parents, who bought her the entire set. She very sweetly brought one a day for me which I’d read during school once I’d raced through my work. How I loved them, especially when I caught brief, tiny signs of a story arc, rather than the usual reset-to-zero that was usual in series in both books and tv of those days.

  3. I also cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew. In elementary school, my two best friends and I would have slumber parties at which we each brought our Nancy Drews and exchanged them around. I never had a complete set, but I think I read most of the ones that were in print when I was between the ages of 9 and 11.

    And now I want to know all about Mildred Wirt, too. She sounds fascinating.

  4. Ah, yes I remember Nancy Drew fondly. Read them all one right after the other. My son prefered them to the Hardy boys–which weren’t as well written in our oppinon. When I grew up and joind Romance Writers of American, two writing sisters took a stab at writing them and decided the contracts weren’t up to snuff and the plot restrictions too tight so only did one. I envy them that one.

  5. I’d agree about the Nancy Drew books generally being better-written than the parallel Hardy Boys books. (Off the top of my head, I suspect the difference is that boys weren’t expected to be as interested in the scenery or background details of whatever setting was being described, and so the Drew writers were able to write more vividly.)

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