My daughter has just become a reader.
She is eight, and something clicked for her between first and second grade. Last year, I still had to read aloud the stories that interested her, but this year, she has taken to independent reading in the car, on the bus, after school, and in her bed too late at night. She is currently reading the 7th Warriors book, her favorite middle-grade series, each one about 150 pages long, rich with drama and conflict and excitement and cats who battle each other for territory and power.
Some days, when I tire of hearing yet again how Scourge is the “evilist cat” in the books, or how “cats who don’t believe in Star Clan don’t get nine lives when they become leaders,” or about poor little kittens who have been murdered, poisoned, or drowned by evil cats like Tigerclaw, I am tempted to tune it out. My daughter’s interest in the books borders on obsessive, and it would be simple to nod along while thinking about something else. However, I want her to know that I’ll always listen to her. Also, my own childhood reading habits provide me with a cautionary tale about kids and what they read.
More specifically, I think a lot about what kids are permitted to read without any adult insight or supervision.
When it comes to supervising or monitoring what stories and ideas kids are consuming, the discussion typically focuses on screens. In 2013, the journal Pediatrics released guidelines about how much time kids should be spending with screens, including TVs, tablets, and phones. Three years later, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced a shift in focus away from simply limiting how much kids are using screens and toward monitoring how they are being used. And in 2017, James Bridle reported on the unsettling nature of the YouTube Kids app, which parents typically assume is safe because there are no ads, and because it’s supposed to be kid-appropriate. Instead, the app is full of questionable content and disturbing, bot-created material that can be damaging to little kids.The Nancy Drew books of the 80s and 90s are aggressively anti-fat, and it’s easy to see how they likely contributed to young girls’ earliest encounters with weight loss, dieting, and negative self-image.
There are no parallel guidelines for monitoring kids’ reading and for a number of good reasons. First, reading is undeniably good for the developing brain, whereas screen use has the potential for negative outcomes in a number of areas of development. Additionally, there is a huge difference between the experience of moderating screen time as compared to book time. Screens are both visual and auditory. As long as parent and child are in the same area of the home, parents can hear what their kids are watching and listening to, and therefore catch unexpected problematic material as it arrives. With books, though, the reading experience is solitary and silent. Parents must make a far more concentrated effort to be aware of what their children are reading.
Recently, my daughter and I read several Nancy Drew books together, which has only solidified my intention to stay involved with what she is reading. Re-visiting these novels that played a big role in my development as a reader has been eye-opening.
I’m not unique in having loved the Nancy Drew series. The novels, written by ghostwriters sharing the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, have been popular for as long as they have been published. Even today, The Secret of the Old Clock is #65 on Amazon’s list of best-selling children’s mystery books, even though it was originally published in 1930. In 2009, Entertainment Weekly placed Nancy as #17 in their list of “20 All-Time Coolest Heroes in Pop Culture,” saying, “The first female hero embraced by most little girls, Drew lived in an endless summer of adventures and unlimited potential.”
Drew’s cultural impact has been significant. According to the New York Times, her fans include noteworthy women such as Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Gayle King, and Diane Sawyer.
Nancy Drew fulfilled a very specific, practical purpose for me. When I entered sixth grade, I was not prepared for the morning ritual that was part of middle school: morning laps. Every single day, as students filed off of buses and out of their parents’ cars, they walked lap after lap through the halls of the rectangular building. This corralling was where everything social happened, where every pubescent drama was centered, where you could see those who had friends and those who did not based on the size of the group they walked with. It was terrifying, but Nancy Drew gave me an escape.
As a shy, reserved kid with the normal amount of social anxiety, I discovered an out from this morning jostling for power and position. I could go to the library, check out a Nancy Drew novel, and retreat to my first period classroom to start reading. Then, throughout the day, I could read the book during passing periods, library time, and lunch. Sometimes I could get through an entire novel before the end of the day and pick up another for after school.
I didn’t read the original Nancy Drew books, published from the 1930s through the early 1980s, but rather, I read the two simultaneously published series from the late-80s and 90s. There were the Simon & Schuster Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, as well as the cooler, sexier Nancy Drew Files. I preferred the Files, but was happy to read whatever I could get my hands on. Looking back, I remember Nancy as thoughtful, resourceful, and kind; her friends Bess and George as relatively forgettable. Before re-visiting the titles last year, I remembered that George was described as athletic and “a tomboy,” while Bess was obsessed with fashion and clothes. That was it for the depth of my memories.
My parents were simply happy that I was reading. Even though there were countless rules in the intensely conservative church community where we were raised, reading somehow flew under the radar of parental and church supervision. Evangelical parenting of the 80s and early 90s was rigid and restrictive. My friends, siblings, and I were forbidden from consuming media about a wide range of topics. We couldn’t watch anything about sexuality, immorality, or magic (Bewitched, David the Gnome, and The Smurfs were all off limits). Even “rudeness” was enough to get a show like The Simpsons onto the “no-go” list. We didn’t celebrate Halloween or get drinks from Orange Julius, whose mascot was a little devil. Reading, though, was left relatively unchecked. Unless the book had somehow caught the attention of James Dobson and Focus on the Family, it was probably fine.
What harm could possibly come from Nancy Drew books? They lacked sex. They lacked profanity. They lacked magic or the occult. They were probably fine.
Christian parents have different measurements for what is “safe” entertainment these days. True, Harry Potter is still condemned in some churches and popular websites measure the sex, violence, and profanity content of media. But you can also find lively conversations online about the importance of racially diverse characters. The popular Jesus Storybook Bible is full of characters with brown skin, rather than having a White Jesus and White Disciples and White Mary. Many Christian parents—especially progressive ones—want their kids’ books and movies to do more than avoid “evil,” but also instruct in the ways of justice and equality.
Because of all this, I myself measure safety differently than my parents did. I don’t fear stories about witchcraft or magic, and I want my kids to encounter healthy narratives about sexuality rather than repressive ones. (I’m one of the people who immediately ordered John Oliver’s Marlon Bundo book about two boy rabbits who fall in love.) I seek out stories of powerful girls and sensitive boys, of smart, kind, and creative kids of all races and genders.
When I decided to read a Nancy Drew novel to my daughter last year, it was born from that desire to introduce her to smart, capable girls. I thought she would love the suspense and the excitement of the stories, hopefully internalizing the positive message about girls’ toughness along the way. My hunch was right: she loved them. We ended up reading four titles from the Mystery Stories series: The Stranger in the Shadows, The Mystery of the Jade Tiger, The Clue in the Antique Trunk, and The Case of the Artful Crime.
What I expected before starting the re-reads:
- Predictable storylines
- Some outdated technology that would probably need to be explained (microfilm and electric typewriters, for instance)
- Centering of white characters with little racial diversity, and maybe some racial stereotyping of minor characters
When I anticipated that the books might not have aged super well, I was right. There are small narrative inconsistencies, and even my first grader found them to be pretty predictable. What I wasn’t expecting? All the body negativity and weight loss talk.
The Nancy Drew books of the 80s and 90s are aggressively anti-fat, and it’s easy to see how they likely contributed to young girls’ earliest encounters with weight loss, dieting, and negative self-image. As I read the novels to my daughter, I frequently skipped paragraphs or lines of dialogue, protecting her for just a little longer from the novels nobody in my childhood ever considered could be problematic.
In Book #103, The Stranger in the Shadows, Nancy and her best friend, Bess Marvin, work together to discover who is bothering a Dutch exchange student at their school. Nancy is 1991 girl-lit perfection: she is slender, she is tall, she is blonde. Her race never has to be mentioned; it is confirmed by the cover image of a white girl in black pantyhose and little black flats, sprawled on the cracking ice of a lake while a man’s shadow looms over her. Nancy’s friend Suzanne is “an inch shorter” than Nancy and “muscular.” George Fayne, who is typically described as an athletic “tomboy,” is not featured in this book, as she’s off on a ski trip. However, the butt of the joke, in terms of physical beauty, is Bess.
On the third page, Bess admires a beautiful outfit in the mall, but she grimaces. “I’d have to go on a serious diet before I wore anything that tight,” she says. The narration continues: “Bess was hiding the five extra pounds she wanted to lose under a long bulky blue top that matched the color of her eyes. A gold barrette kept her long blond hair away from her face.” The comment about her eyes might sound innocent to people who have never navigated the world as a fat girl, but to many, the words are a slap: fat girls and women have often been complimented on their eyes or hair, but not the rest of their bodies, for their entire lives.
The focus on Bess’s desire to lose weight continues throughout the novel, along with an obsession with food that none of the other characters seem to have. Nancy enjoys an ice cream sundae at times, or a special treat from the food court, but it is Bess who is just plain obsessed. She’s the one who focuses on food, eating, consuming, devouring. She misses an important clue because she can’t decide between desserts. She spends $15 on breakfast. She licks her lips as she stares at a sandwich.
Book #105, The Clue In the Antique Trunk, gives Bess a lot more to do. Her character development in this one involves more than just dieting, eating, and shopping: she also gets to read an antique diary that holds the clues to a mystery in a New England town. Still, the first half of the book is peppered with jokes about how you can always find Bess at the refreshments table, how she needed to get one of each piece of dessert from the buffet, and how it’s funny that Bess was so invested in reading the diary that she forgot about her favorite thing: sweets. Similarly, Book #106, The Case of the Artful Crime, mostly features Bess’s love of cooking and food through the plot-driving job as a restaurant hostess.
It’s Book #104 that is particularly difficult to deal with, though. The Mystery of the Jade Tiger featured entire paragraphs that I couldn’t read out loud to my daughter if I wanted to keep up the pretense that the books don’t shame Bess for being just the tiniest bit heavier than her friends. On the very first page, Bess finds “the most perfect dress in the world,” which is short, pink, and ruffled, with tiny little straps. “I’m going to lose five pounds before the wedding,” she says, justifying the purchase. Nancy herself isn’t sure what to say. Nancy “bit back a smile. Bess was always going to lose five pounds. And she was always buying some adorable dress that didn’t quite fit. Nancy tried to find a tactful answer.”
Halfway through the book, Bess wants to do something indulgent—take mud baths at a ritzy salon—whereas her cousin George wants to go on a mountain bike ride. How does George make her argument that bike riding would be the better option? It would be more likely to help Bess lose those five pounds, she says. And when they do end up going on the bike ride, Bess asks if everybody else thinks the exertion was enough to help her get to her goal weight.
When I showed these portions to a colleague, her response was telling. She recoiled and handed back the book. “That’s poison,” she said.
Poison. Yes. What an apt description of the kind of literature that suggests to children—little girls, specifically—that the body of a teenage girl needs to be smaller, to take up less space. Is it any wonder that very young girls believe that they are fat and perceive fat to be an inherently bad thing? Arguably, weight is not just associated with issues of public health, but also of public disgust.
The fact that Bess’s goal is to lose five pounds is also worth looking at more closely.
Most adult women know that a five pound swing in weight is hardly noticeable, let alone a factor in whether a dress is tight or not. But how does an 8- or 10-year-old girl perceive that number? Is my daughter supposed to understand that the goal of losing five pounds is silly and inconsequential—ultimately, Bess is as thin and as appealing as her friends, but just a tiny (and I mean TINY) bit heavier? Or is my daughter supposed to see five pounds as a significant amount of weight, an insurmountable goal that can never be accomplished when desserts and candies exist in the world?
Re-reading the 80s/90s Nancy Drew books with my daughter was emotionally complicated. It accomplished much of what I wanted it to do in terms of introducing her to a strong girl with a knack for getting into and then out of trouble, but I found myself editing much of it, grateful that she wasn’t reading them on her own.
I turned to friends in the days after reading these novels, curious if they remembered this fat-shaming element. I am troubled by my lack of recollection of these details. I wonder, did I perceive these statements as silly? Did I read past them, not really noticing? Or did I do what I think is probably most likely: accept them into my establishing worldview that fat is bad, women’s bodies are meant to be perfect, and if pretty girls can’t like their bodies, how could I like mine?
Most of my friends read the original novels, but some did read the same series as me. Regardless of which Nancy Drew books were present in their adolescence, they remembered that Bess was heavy. My friend Caitlin said, “I only read a couple Nancy Drews, and honestly the only thing I remember is that Bess was chubby. I couldn’t tell you the mysteries, or what Nancy Drew liked or did.” Just that Bess was heavier than the others. Hilary said, “I remember that Bess was chubby and George was a tomboy. I felt both of them were far more interesting than Nancy was.”
This point in the conversation was when I realized that despite reading thousands of pages in these books, perhaps the reason I couldn’t remember Bess’s focus on her weight was because the reader never really gets a chance to know these characters or their motivations beyond the superficial. They are almost always described by their actions, but not their beliefs, values, struggles, doubts, or uncertainties. The lack of character development is probably a bigger contributor to my weak memory of the stories than anything else. There’s not much there to remember.
“Bess is fat” shows up here and there in popular culture, like when Jackie from That 70s Show jokes that she figured out what made Bess “so pudgy”: ice cream sundaes at the end of every novel. A librarian, Pamela, wrote in 2015 about the realization that Bess was fat-shamed throughout the series. That same year, author Jennifer L. Gadd wrote “In Defense of Bess Marvin,” which suggested that her body image issues weren’t just internal, but forced on her by the meanness of Nancy and George.
Still, my friend Nina turned my speculation into certainty. She said, “I loved Nancy Drew as a kid, and I remember identifying with Bess because of her body image. I thought I needed to lose weight as early as second grade. Nancy was already perfect, and I couldn’t relate to her so much.” Second grade. That’s my daughter’s age. If Nina could perceive herself as needing weight loss in second grade, and Bess Marvin was a model of that perceived need, then it could happen to my girl, too. And maybe it happened to me.
My siblings, parents, and I look back on the rigidity of the rules we were raised with a sense of humor and embarrassment. My parents weren’t trying to be so strict, but the cultural influences of the time—both national and local—created intense pressure to keep us “safe” from things like spiritual warfare, sexual immorality, rebellion, and “falling away from God.” I recently asked my mom if she remembered much about restricting our reading. For as many rules as there were to follow about movies, music, and TV, why were we left relatively unsupervised when it came to books? She doesn’t remember a communal emphasis on restricting our access to books, although there were definitely titles that would have concerned her. For the most part, the books we were bringing home looked pretty mundane. What’s to object to in a Nancy Drew novel, anyway?
I think another part of the answer is that it is simply much harder to keep track of what kids are reading than it is what they are watching or listening to. My mom had four kids, and keeping tabs on every book we brought home was unrealistic. It probably helped that my desire to follow the rules meant that I always avoided anything that I feared would get me into trouble. I wasn’t a kid Mom had to worry about.
My daughter’s obsession with the Warriors books reminds me of my love for Nancy Drew. I know that as a mom who works, writes, and tries to do reading of my own, I’m not going to be able to read every single novel that she brings home. However, I also don’t want to just ignore her reading habits. I don’t want to assume that because it’s middle-grade or young adult, then it must be fine. Literature is an expander of worlds, and I refuse to shelter my kids from the things they can learn from reading. However, I also need to figure out a system that allows me to engage with them and the ideas they’re gleaning from the books.
I don’t think that adults have to read every single word their kids read in order to protect them. That’s not a solution I can get behind. I think the responsibility here lies with publishers, writers, and parents. Publishers need to be aware of story tropes that we’ve swallowed without questioning. As writers, we need to find better ways to convey character traits, especially of children and young adults, without promoting the narrative that their bodies are flawed or deserving of criticism. As usual, parents bear most of the responsibility here, whether or not that is fair. I want to be watchful of what my kids are reading and, perhaps most importantly, teaching them how to recognize problematic messaging that accompanies so many childhood narratives.
My biggest responsibility isn’t to police my daughter’s reading, but rather, to prepare her for a world that is full of ugly stereotypes and hurtful narratives. I don’t think there’s any fat shaming in her beloved Warriors series, but I’m sure she will encounter it eventually, especially as she gains access to libraries, her parents’ bookshelves, and the internet. With this particular issue, my job is to model body positivity and affirmation of all body types so that when she encounters fat-shaming, it looks absurd to her, rather than aspirational. Perhaps if she can reject that kind of message from the books, she’ll be able to reject it from the all the places it hides in the rest of the world, too.