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