This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (3,070) on Friday, October 6, 2023.
Book banning. The utter futility of it seems obvious to me. Even if you succeed in taking a book off a library or bookstore shelf, that doesn’t mean you are going to keep the book from being read. In fact, the very act of seeking its removal is likely to result in more readers for the book.
Yet, book banning is an activity that continues to attract hundreds if not thousands of participants. Those who keep up with these things say that the last few years have seen a marked rise in this sad and futile activity.
That’s why this week has been Banned Book Week, an event supported by the American Booksellers for Free Expression, American Library Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Amnesty International USA, Association of University Presses, Authors Guild, Banned Books Week Sweden, Children’s Book Council, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Freedom to Read Foundation, GLAAD, Index on Censorship, Little Free Library, National Book Foundation, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English, PEN America, People for the American Way Foundation, PFLAG, and Project Censored. It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.
It’s not too late for an expression of support for the freedom to read. Make it to your favorite librarian, teacher, or even your best friend. Let’s keep demonstrating how futile it is to ban books.
Meanwhile, have a great and literate weekend.
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How Mildred Wirt became Carolyn Keene—and changed the culture
Note: This item was originally published in the newsletter in 2019, but I thought this might be a good time to pull it out of the archives since I did a piece on Edward Stratemeyer a couple of weeks ago. Also, it is worth noting that many of Stratemeyer’s publications were initially banned from libraries not because of a public outcry but because many librarians of the early 20th century did not think they had any moral worth. Kids who read them had a much different opinion.
If you were a young reader, you know that Carolyn Keene wrote the Nancy Drew mysteries. And if you remained aware of that into adulthood, chances are that you found out that Carolyn Keene didn’t exist.
So who was Carolyn Keene, really?
The creator of Nancy Drew was Edward Stratemeyer, about whom we have written before here, but the person who gave her life and pluck was an Iowan named Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson.
Born in 1905, Benson showed up at the University of Iowa in 1922 as Mildred Wirt, and as an article in Iowa Magazine outlines, she was a force of nature from the very beginning:
Benson also made waves in Iowa’s newly formed journalism school. In 1922, she joined The Daily Iowan as a reporter at a time when a growing number of women were breaking into the field. Although future renowned pollster George Gallup (23BA, 25MA, 28PhD, 67LLD) was her editor and later her professor, the paper only four years earlier was the first college daily in the nation to operate under a female editor.
Active in many student organizations, Benson served as the sole female editor of the Hawkeye yearbook and as president of a women’s writing group. She wrote hundreds of short stories for national children’s magazines—a practice she started after publishing her first article at age 13. Most notably, Benson became the first woman to graduate from Iowa’s journalism school in 1925 and the first person to receive a master’s degree in journalism from Iowa in 1927. Source: How the University of Iowa Helped Solve the Greatest Nancy Drew Mystery – University of Iowa
During graduate school, Benson answered an ad from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which wanted writers for their various series of children’s books. Stratemeyer had an idea for a new series that would appeal to girls, and—as was his usual procedure—sent Benson an outline for the first three books, beginning with The Secret of the Old Clock.
She was paid a flat $125 fee for each book—no royalties and no byline. In fact, part of the agreement was that she would not disclose that she was the author. It was a promise she kept for 50 years, even when others were taking credit for her work.
Stratemeyer wasn’t particularly happy with the character that Benson had created, complaining that she was too flippant, but his complaints subsided when the series became a big hit and the money rolled into his bank account. Nancy Drew was not only flippant, but she was also strong, bold, and independent-minded—something the culture of children’s literature had never seen before. If you knew the real author, you would have thought she based the character on herself, but that’s not what Benson had in mind.
“I didn’t consciously make her like myself. I made her good-looking, smart, and a perfectionist. I made her a concept of the girl I’d like to be,” Benson once told The New York Times. “Today that kind of woman is common, but then it was a new concept.”
Benson wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries. She wrote dozens of other books as well, 135 in all. She worked as a journalist in Toledo, Ohio, where she met and married her husband, George Benson.
Nancy Drew became more than a character in a book. Within a couple of generations, she was a cultural phenomenon, inspiring young girls to go beyond what society expected of them or tried to restrict them to. Hundreds of women in the late 20th century attributed much of their ambitions and success to Nancy Drew.
For Benson, however, Nancy Drew was far from her favorite creation. She liked Penny Parker, a young newspaper reporter, much better. Parker starred in a series of 17 books that Benson wrote and published under her own name between 1939 and 1947.
Benson died at the age of 96 in 2002. She was still working as a newspaper columnist at the time. There is far more to Benson’s life than I have recounted here, and I highly recommend the Iowa Magazine article cited above for a more complete picture.
I owe a grand thank you to Peter Gross, a gentleman and scholar and my good friend, for pointing me to this article. Peter, among his many achievements, is a graduate of the University of Iowa.
And one more thing about Nancy Drew
I owe my entire writing career to Nancy Drew. I often say that one can’t be a writer without being an avid reader and my reading journey began when a lovely librarian placed The Secret of the Old Clock into my 9-year-old hands and a bookaholic was made. I suppose it’s no surprise that when I created my Tradd Street series, readers would call them “Nancy Drew Mysteries for adults.” Source: Nancy Drew for Adults: Great Amateur Sleuth Series for Readers Over Twenty | CrimeReads
That’s how novelist Karen White, author of the Tradd Street series (Dreams of Falling, The Night the Lights Went Out, etc.) begins a nifty piece on CrimeReads.com that recommends some amateur sleuths that you can graduate to once you have read some Nancy Drew books.
You will probably be familiar with some of these folks, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, but others may be new to you. For instance, there’s Greg Isles’ Penn Cage (Natchez Burning), who operates in Mississippi, of all places.
Nancy Drew is close to the beginning for a lot of us.
And, while you’re at it, you will want to check out Ivy Pochoda’s roundup of the latest crime books by female authors:
. . . women crime novelists have utterly captured the genre, pushing its boundaries in important, exciting and creative ways. Writers such as Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke and Tana French, to name just a few, give us powerful female characters who upend the stereotypes of their gender. Some of them are cunning, others damaged or deranged. These characters appear on all sides of investigations as victims, investigators and even criminals, reinvigorating the genre as they break down its barriers. Source: Cunning, Damaged and Deranged: The Latest Thrillers by Women – The New York Times
The review highlights some good books that are about to jump into a lot of e-readers and onto a lot of bookshelves.
Vince Vawter: Manboy
The books are autobiographical historical fiction that trace the growth of Vic Vollmer from a paperboy with a worrisome stutter to a budding journalist caught up in one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century and at the same time dealing with a complicated relationship with Philomene, a young lady from Louisiana who visits him with burdens of her own.
Vince’s Paperboy won numerous awards, including a Newberry when it was published in 2014. Copyboy collected its own set of honors when it came out in 2018.
Manboy is just as likely to win over readers and critics.
Vince is a veteran of 40 years in the newspaper business, serving as a reporter, editor, and publisher in places like Memphis, Knoxville, and Evansville (Indiana). He is an exceptionally good writer whose fiction is full of characters you will care about deeply.
During this first month of publication, Manboy is offered at an introductory price, but that is likely to change in November. Buy your copy today, and urge your local library and bookstore to stock these wonderful books.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Group giveaways for October
Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.
Mike M.: I just wanted to drop you a line or two about my experience with inverted murder mysteries.
My first experience was watching an episode of Perry Mason when I was home from school due to a slight case of walking pneumonia. I loved it when they ID’d the murderer at the end of the show! It made me search out every Erle Stanley Gardner book in the public library!
Columbo was the next show I recall being inverted mysteries. I was a fan of Peter Falk and was never able to get my Columbo imitation down pat.
William G.: I enjoyed your story about Austin Freeman and the “Inverted Mystery.” As I read, I kept wondering if you would mention the modern equivalent of Freeman’s style. Peter Falk’s Columbo looks like it was taken directly from Freeman’s concept. The murderer and his crime are revealed in the first 15 minutes and then we watch Columbo sort it all out with his inimitable style. The producers of Columbo must have been aware of Freeman’s concept of the inverted mystery.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Blount County Public Library
I participated in the Plein Air Quickdraw event last Saturday sponsored by the Friends of the Smokies. We were given two hours to draw or paint anything within the city limits of Maryville, Tennessee. This painting of the Blount County Public Library was completed in about one hour and fifteen minutes.
Best quote of the week:
It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them. Agatha Christie, author (1890-1976)
Grace for All: A daily devotional podcast
One of the great privileges I have had over the last few months is working with a dedicated group of folks to produce a daily devotional podcast series for 1st United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee.
Our first season (15 episodes, plus maybe a bonus one or two) is up and running now and can be heard at https://1stchurch.org/podcast or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple, Spotify, Google, etc.). The episodes are about five minutes and are meant to enlighten and inspire.
The episodes are also on YouTube, if that is your preferred way of receiving these things.
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
Helping those in need
Earthquakes in Turkey, fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee: disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The inverted mystery, the role of “influencers,” and a couple of reminders from last week: newsletter, September 29, 2023
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