The Most Famous Children’s Book Author Who Never Existed

“The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.” —Ken Kesey

In A Nutshell

Carolyn Keene’s beloved children’s Nancy Drew sleuth series has sold over 200 million copies and has been published in 17 different languages. But who was Carolyn Keene? As it turns out, Keene is a ghost, and the publishing company that owns the franchise has engaged in long legal battles to establish true authorship.

The Whole Bushel

The Nancy Drew series began in 1930 with the publication of the book The Secrets of the Old Clock. The series focuses on young, amateur detective Nancy Drew, a high school student living in the fictional city of River Falls. Each book in the series involves a different mystery that Nancy must solve. The series was an instant success, and the protagonist has been an inspiration for many young girls ever since. The original series spawned multiple spin-off series, resulting in over 300 books bearing the young sleuth’s name. The question is: Who wrote these books?

Twenty-three of the first Nancy Drew novels were written by a woman named Mildred Wirt Benson. Benson agreed to be a ghostwriter for the series, whose title character was created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, and signed a non-disclosure contract with the Stratemeyer Syndicate. In total, Benson was paid $125 per book. She was never paid royalties for her work. This is all in spite of the fact that Benson was the one to take Stratemeyer’s basic idea for the character and give it a shape and voice.

Benson was one of many writers who worked under this contract and the Carolyn Keene pseudonym. In reality, Keene was more than a dozen authors. Chief among them was Edward Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet Adams, who has written the majority of the books in the series. Some other incarnations of Keene were James Duncan Lawrence, Priscilla Doll, Charles Strong, and Nancy Axelrad.

One Carolyn Keene, Walter Karig, broke the secrecy agreement and went public with the notion that he had written three books in the series. Karig wrote to the Library of Congress asking for credit of the three novels. In response, the Stratemeyer Syndicate denied that Karig had ever written for them. The company also reached out to the Library of Congress to stop the presses on his accreditation.

In 1980, a lawsuit between publishing company Grosset & Dunlap and the Stratemeyer Syndicate forced the truth behind Carolyn Keene’s identity into the public eye. The company sued Stratemeyer to keep the rights of the Nancy Drew books and to stop Stratemeyer from publishing the books elsewhere. In the lawsuit, Benson was called to testify. Benson confirmed that she was indeed the author of the original 23 novels. Grosset & Dunlap went on to win the rights to the first 56 Nancy Drew books.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate was absorbed by Simon & Schuster two years after the death of Harriet Adams, who had taken control over the book packager after her father’s death. Nancy Drew novels are still being published today by the New York book packager Mega-Books.

Who, then, do we have to thank for this famous children’s hero? First and foremost, credit must be given to Mildred Benson, who took the initial idea and created a beloved icon out of it. Second are all the other names and faces of Carolyn Keene that have existed over the decades, without whom the series would have faded away long ago.

Show Me The Proof

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak
Seattle P-I: It’s no mystery why Nancy Drew author still writes: ‘It’s a way of life’
Library of Congress: The Case of the Missing Author
Stratemeyer Syndicate Records, 1832–1984

  • Fabia Walker

    I remember one author was reccuring because she would be told she made Nancy too tomboyish and get fired, but I think she worked on it two or three spread out times. This story was in the back of some special edition Nancy Drew book thing I got back when I was obsessed with the series, but I can’t remember what it’s called now. If I remember correctly, actually, the first seven books were written by one person then they switched, but I haven’t read it in a while so I could be wrong.

  • Lisa 39

    I love nancy drew! I still have some of the books, i also have the hardy boys and the bobbsey twins!

    • OC

      Love for all these books — the one thing my siblings had in common. Otherwise we’d argue and fight.

      • Lisa 39

        My brother and i were the same way!

    • Hillyard

      Ever read any of the Three Investigators books? I used to love those and the Hardy boys.

      • Lisa 39

        I don’t think i’ve read those but i have a donna parker book, dang, our age is showing again lol

    • TheMadHatter

      I have 20 Nancy Drew books but I’m missing the 17th. Oh well. These are from thirty years ago but I don’t know which of the series’ that was, but I’ve only read the one. Someone gave me the first five hardy boys books after I read Nancy Drew but I ended up not finishing all five because I realized Nancy Drew is the only detective series I’ll ever like… Oh well. I didn’t realize that old books don’t have coffee stains until now… Just yellow pages. The more you know.

      • Lisa 39

        That’s awesome hatter! I have other old books like heidi and mother goose, o snap, i just had a thought! I wish i had a pic of fester holding a lightbulb lol, anyway, i have been looking for my favorite childhood book for a while, now i can google it! Thank you hatter!

      • Lisa 39

        I found something for you!

  • OC

    The usual thievery.

  • UN

    title was a bit misleading, as stories did had authors……….like a dozen of them they all just used the same pseudonym

  • Hillyard

    So this Carolyn Keene is much like the Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers names, pseudonyms for the various real authors.

    • OC

      Abby and Ann were twin sisters, and now their daughter is Ann. NOT the same. This publisher has made millions, paid almost nothing to the original authors, then, to add insult to injury, almost succeeded in stripping them of credits for all posterity.

      • Hillyard

        There were at least three ‘Ann Landers’ before the most famous/long running one, Esther Lederer. The column ended when she died in 2002. Abigail Van Buren was the creation of Esther’s twin sister Pauline Phillips. When Pauline Phillips retired in 2002, her daughter Jeanne Phillips took over.

  • rincewind

    Ellery Queen, the famous writer of detective novels, also never existed. There were several writers involved but the most famous (in my view) was Jack Vance, one of my favourite scifi authors.

    • OC

      OK like they are doing James Bond and the great Robert Ludlum now. And that Sweede. George Sands, Mark Twain used pseudonyms and no one tried to steal their work. Even James Patterson and now, several of the mystery writers are writing collaborative novels.
      The above problem seems to be that the publisher was trying to convince a judge and the Library of Congress that some of the books descended from the heavens.

      • lbatfish

        And Tom Clancy, with all of the series that have his name on them. I’d imagine he must be setting some new kind of record.

  • Pawesl

    There are a lot of companies that do this. I read something the other day about James Frey (yes that one) who has a publishing company Full Fathom Five and they are a book farm. Hiring writers to write books then throwing pseudonyms on them and selling millions while the original writer gets a one time stipend.

    • OC

      OK Ghostwriting. All the stars’ autobiographies.

  • ggetaclue

    OI! Nancy lived in River Heights, not River Falls, sheesh.