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Nancy Drew and the Case of the Politically Incorrect Children’s Books

The young sleuth’s early mysteries were racist and anti-Semitic. Can problematic vintage texts still be valuable for kids?

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images Series Books)
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Starting in 1959, the books’ publisher put pressure on Adams to revise the books—not only to eliminate bias but also to modernize the language and streamline the plots. Adams was cranky about it, but she acceded. “Revising the books wasn’t just about removing stereotypes,” Fisher told me. “It was about shortening them to around 180 pages from around 210 pages. A lot of the descriptive elements got lost. Subplots were dropped. A lot of people feel that the spice was lost; the revising quickened everything and made the books choppier. The main reason they were revised was that they were cheaper to produce.” Some of the books were drastically rewritten—The Clue of the Broken Locket dumped the adoption plot entirely and became a story about a Civil War treasure hunt—and some were less drastically changed. The Negro caretaker in the first book became a white Southerner who says things like “I’m hornswaggled!”

Today you can buy both original and revised versions of the first 34 books. I grew up reading the revised versions, so to me, they’re canon. But I understand Rehak’s and Fisher’s love for the originals, with their quirkier plots, greater dangers, and more complex language. As Rehak said, “I grew up reading politically incorrect books, but I grew up to be a left-leaning, inclusive person.”

Lots of beloved classics are problematic. The Little House on the Prairie books contain multiple uses of the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” (The original version also said, “There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”) The original Oompa Loompas were black pygmies “from the very deepest, darkest part of African jungle” who were thrilled to be kidnapped into Wonka slavery. Dr. Dolittle, Oliver Twist, Babar … all have issues with racism, colonialism, or anti-Semitism. But as a parent, I think we can talk about troubling aspects of vintage books with our kids. I was horrified by an essay by a woman who took it upon herself to “childproof” Harry Potter as she read it aloud to her son, making it less scary and more respectful of authority, even changing the text so that Voldemort didn’t kill Harry’s parents. If you think your kid may be too young for a classic, wait. And consider discussing, rather than whitewashing, the aspects of the text that trouble you.

The original Nancy Drews came out of the Depression; they can be read as middle-class fantasy novels, fairy tales about fast cars and pretty outfits and a teenager who could make the world seem safe again. I read them not knowing that they’d once had such distressing portrayals of ethnic characters. But even knowing this now, I can’t turn against Nancy. She was dauntless and nervy, and those are qualities for today’s girls—of all backgrounds—to emulate.

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Nancy Drew and the Case of the Politically Incorrect Children’s Books

The young sleuth’s early mysteries were racist and anti-Semitic. Can problematic vintage texts still be valuable for kids?

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