'Gee, Nancy, You're So Smart!' ; Nancy Drew Seeks a New Generation of Readers, but Some Teachers Would Prefer That She Stay out of the Classroom

Article excerpt

As a fourth-grader, Desiree Koh wanted to be Nancy Drew. She and a couple of her classmates started a "detective agency" and tried to crack small cases - from a thief stealing kids' lunches to finding a missing pencil. During recess, they would hide under their teacher's desk, hoping to catch the thief in action.

The cases were never solved. "But I would always think, 'What would Nancy do?' " says Koh, a lifelong fan who grew up in Singapore and now lives in Chicago.

This month, Simon & Schuster is giving the classic series a makeover. The titian-haired sleuth is now a strawberry blonde and she volunteers at an animal shelter. She's traded in her blue Mustang convertible for a hybrid car. She's Internet savvy and carries a cell- phone. The new books are now narrated in first person.

Ever since the first mystery, "The Secret of the Old Clock" debuted in 1930, generations of young girls have admired Nancy Drew's tenacity and intelligence. While the new titles don't quite measure up to the old ones - "Without a Trace" today versus the more romantic and mysterious "The Hidden Staircase" - one thing hasn't changed: Her presence in the classroom remains somewhat controversial.

Some teachers love the series because it hooks kids on reading. The young sleuth is also a good role model - she's active and smart, and her supportive boyfriend Ned Nickerson stands in the background and applauds her. But it feeds an old debate - is it better to give kids a book they love to get them excited about reading, or should class assignments involve a higher caliber of literature?

Ilene Abramson, director of children's services at the Los Angeles Public Library, says the books are a great way to get children into reading. But when it comes to book reports, teachers gravitate toward "Lemony Snicket," the Newbery-award winning "The Tale of Despereaux," and "Harry Potter."

"The Nancy Drew books are not fine literature, they're fun escapism," says Ms. Abramson. "Nancy Drew will always have a following because so many children who get started on the series really enjoy them. Nancy affords children adventure, mystery, and excitement in the safety of their own rooms."

It may help kids get into reading, but one library collection of girls' literature has just about shut the door on Nancy Drew. The Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, in Duke University's Special Collections Library, carries thousands of titles in girls' literature. …