Here at Book Riot, Nancy Drew is a popular topic of discussion. All 56 original books have been ranked. We’ve already shared some of our favorite books with you. To top it all off, this year marks the 90th birthday of our favorite intrepid adolescent detective.
There have been many more teenage detectives since Nancy first appeared in 1930, including the Scooby Gang and Veronica Mars, but when The Secret of the Old Clock: Nancy Drew was published, girls were a rarity in children’s literature. This changed with Nancy Drew. Surely no one expected a group of 16-year-olds to solve a major crime? You must be shocked, right?) However, things were about to get a whole lot worse. Edward Stratemeyer’s creations, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, proved that kids were interested in reading about other kids catching jewel thieves. There were many other publishers who followed suit, creating an Avengers-like team of happy teenage detectives in the 1930s through the ’50s, including Stratemeyer.
Nancy Drew Mystery Stories books have sold more than 70 million copies since the 1930s, making her the most popular well-coiffed teen girl to find missing people and fortunes. Many of her contemporaries are no longer in print or are only vaguely remembered, which is a shame because they each contributed something unique to the canon of children’s literature (a nurse detective, for example). In honor of Nancy Drew’s 90th birthday, I’ve compiled a list of the other Nancy Drew-esque books that were published in the same era of children’s literature.
Note: There are a lot of white kids on this list of other teen sleuths. Often, even those closest to the main character are white. This is understandable given the publishing industry’s predominance of white protagonists in the 1930s and 1940s. More ethnically diverse Nancy Drew readalikes can be found in this Book Riot post. The following list includes modern mysteries written by authors of color and/or who identify as LGBTQ+.
Versions “For Boys”: The Hardy Boys
Not even Nancy Drew was the first teen sleuth. Stratemeyer’s new idea of teen brothers solving crimes was the inspiration for what we know today. Both Frank and Joe Hardy are adults and live with their families in the town of Bayport, where they attend school. Frank and Joe’s father, Fenton, is a detective in the same vein as many of these teen sleuth series. Although they are required to attend school, it does not interfere with their investigations into theft, diamond smuggling, horse kidnapping, and other small-town crimes.
The Tower Treasure was the first film in which the brothers appeared as detectives.
First-edition books were reworked in 1959 to remove some racist language and characterization, to simplify the language, and to make the plots more exciting. Post-1959 Hardy Boys books are the only ones you’ve likely read. After the publication of The Sting of the Scorpion in 1979, the original series of Frank and Joe was officially discontinued. However, the characters have continued to appear in numerous spin-offs, TV shows, and comics since then. (There will also be a new television show in the near future.)
Because Stratemeyer first perfected book packaging on Frank and Joe, the Hardy Boys’ books share many similarities with Nancy Drew’s, from the writing style to the cover art. He wrote the outline for each book before handing it over to a ghostwriter, who would then write the story. Franklin W. Dixon, a pseudonym given to the series’ publisher, Grosset & Dunlap, was a fake author. Seeing how popular the Hardy Boys were, Stratemeyer decided to create a “girls’ version.” Many of the books on this list, including Nancy Drew, were written using the same outlining and ghostwriting techniques. In the early 1960s, the Nancy books underwent revisions and were reissued. This post at Book Riot explains it in greater detail.
Basically Nancy, But Less Fun: Kay Tracey
Following in the footsteps of Frank, Joe, and Nancy, Stratemeyer created Kay Tracey. Kay was a high school student who made her acting debut in 1934 and went on to star in 18 films with her mother and cousin (also a lawyer, like Carson Drew). Despite its resemblance to the more popular Nancy books, this series failed to gain traction. Kay’s detractors argued that she lacked Nancy’s logical and methodical qualities and that she lacked the same degree of authority and freedom as Nancy did. Kay had to go to school because she didn’t have a car. Readers of the Kay books may not have found Nancy’s ability to hold sway over male authority figures as appealing as Nancy’s ability to hold sway over the police chief and her father.
Boarding School Sleuths: The Dana Girls
Taking the Nancy Drew formula and putting it in a boarding school setting, this series debuted in 1934 as well. Jean and Louisa Dana, orphaned sisters, attend the Starhurst School for Girls, where they investigate campus crimes. Carolyn Keene was the pseudonym for a group of ghostwriters, as you can see on the cover of this series, which was also published by Grosset & Dunlap, but these books differ significantly from Nancy Drew’s. Nancy was free to do whatever she wanted while the rest of the characters were at school. A well-respected authority figure, in this case the headmistress, gets more involved in the girls’ investigations than Nancy does. This sets them apart from Nancy—an only child who prefers to investigate on her own and has almost no one to confide in. Although it lasted until 1979, this series never really caught on in pop culture, despite the fact that it melded the teen sleuth and boarding school genres.
Solving Crimes in the Countryside: Trixie Belden
Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are the only other series on this list that you may have read. There was a lot of interest in the Trixie Belden series of books. Readers were charmed by Trixie’s girl next door appeal and humble country upbringing, even though she didn’t appear in print until 1948 Trixie’s idyllic farm life is filled with love and laughter for her and her siblings. Moreover, she is the series’ youngest detective, having turned 13 at the start of the first season. Her exploits have taken on a cozier, more intimate tone. While Trixie does have a mystery-solving club of her own, she also has brothers and other friends to help her out. While Nancy is always the center of attention (in contrast), It was Julie Campbell who conceived of the series and wrote the first six books in the series, which undoubtedly contributed to the series’ overall tone before ghostwriters took control.
The Crime-Solving Nurse: Cherry Ames
A nurse who solves crimes? You bet! It’s hard to believe that a nurse like Cherry could find the time to solve crimes, but she did. Cherry’s nursing background can be explained by the fact that the first book was published in 1943, which was a way to encourage girls to become nurses or otherwise assist in the war effort. While Cherry’s first few books focus on her wartime training and experiences, she eventually embarks on a series of adventures that sees her working as both a nurse and a detective in various locales. Cherry has the ability to care for anyone and solve any crime, no matter where she goes.
The Career Girl: Connie Blair
From 1948 to 1958, Connie Blair starred in a dozen mysteries. Connie is an unusual teen sleuth in that she works as a model and secretary in the advertising industry. This series was criticized for its sexism because it was set in Philadelphia. In her book, The Girl Sleuth, critic and author Bobbie Ann Mason opines that Connie employs feminine cunning to get what she wants or aid her investigations. As a career woman, Connie’s status as a teen detective is somewhat unusual.
The High School Reporter: Penny Parker
Penny Parker was a high school student who worked at her father’s newspaper as a mystery solver and a part-time reporter. A former newspaper reporter, Mildred Wirt Benson, was one of the original Nancy Drew ghostwriters. In 1939, Penny appeared on the scene and shared a few characteristics with Nancy. Aside from being raised by a devoted housekeeper and having a deceased mother who was still actively involved in her father’s career, she had little else. The first four Penny Parker books, like Nancy and the Hardy Boys, were reissued in the late 1950s. It’s true that the series didn’t have as much appeal as Nancy Drew’s, but Halcyon Press recently released digital editions. Start with “The Tale of the Witch Doll.”
Nancy, But Make It Realistic: Judy Bolton
As the popularity of Nancy and the Hardys grew, another character from Grosset & Dunlap, Judy Bolton, was born. Since the first novel, The Vanishing Shadow, isn’t nearly as good as its sequels, The Haunted Attic, is a better place to begin your reading journey. In book two, Judy and her family have relocated to a larger city due to her father’s new medical practice. She’s torn between her affluent city pals and the down-to-earth people she met in her small town back in the country. And there’s also a creepy attic, a missing cat, two lovers and an annoying brother—plus a mystery to solve.
Since I was a kid, Judy Bolton has been one of my favorite Nancy Drew-esque characters, and it’s because she feels like a real person. The Judy books, on the other hand, stand out for a variety of reasons. Instead of a team of ghostwriters, they were all written by one individual, Margaret Sutton. Although her father is a doctor and they have a comfortable lifestyle, Judy and her family don’t jet off to Scotland or New Orleans whenever the opportunity presents itself. Judy is also a student at her old high school, and she ages! She completes her education and even marries. One of the few characters in this genre who isn’t stuck in their adolescent years, Judy stands out.
The series was canceled in 1967, despite the fact that Judy was a popular character. Since then, the original 38 books have been reissued in paperback, and in 2012, a new book, The Strange Likeness, based on Sutton’s long-lost outline, was published by Kate Duvall and Beverly Hatfield. A new Judy book was released in 2018, which means there may be more teen sleuth books to come.
Those are just a few of the classic teenage sleuths you can meet! The fact that there are so many books like Nancy Drew, despite Nancy being the most well-known, suggests readers from the 1930s to the present day have a thirst for female detectives of all kinds. You can test your knowledge of Nancy Drew by taking our quiz, and if you still want more, we’ve got a thoughtful essay about how Nancy helped one reader reject toxic masculinity.