Valerie Who?

review of Youíre a Brick, Angela!

Did you know about Valerie Drew? She sleuthed her way through the British girlsí magazines of the thirties and forties, quite independently of our own Nancy. Since Nancy Drew wasnít published in England until the fifties, itís an open question how they are related. (Distant -- very distant -- cousins?) One big difference is that Valerie follows her clues and tracks down her villains (and gets hit on the head with the family regularity) without any helpful sidekicks except her dog.

I met Valerie in a book by Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, Youíre a Brick, Angela! (Gollancz, London 1976). This is a survey of girlsí literature from 1875 to 1975, quoted in Carol Billmanís The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Always curious about the history of our genre, I tracked it down in the library -- it was well above eye level in a dark corner of the juvenile room, facing a blank wall. And eventually I decided it had been stashed there for a reason. Donít read this book if your blood pressure tends to rise when, for instance, people speak slightingly of Anne Shirley.

In fact, the whole book is not exactly what I expected from the title, or even from the cover (which is a reproduction of the cover of a 1900-or-so boarding-school opus). In the first place, itís more literary criticism than it is publishing history, and like many lit crit types, the authors are (1) completely oblivious to humor; (2) intent on trying to impose 1990s feminist standards on 1890s writers; (3) given to making statements of opinion as if they were fact.

They start out trying to give a balanced view of English vs. American fiction in alternate chapters, carefully pointing out that the social background of the readers differed considerably on opposite sides of the ocean. That only lasts until about 1900, after which the only American books they recognize are Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton, Anne of Green Gables (they think sheís American), Daddy Long Legs, and Pollyanna. They approve of none of these, I might add, with the possible exception of Nancy. At least they are fairly neutral about her, unlike the others. They also donít like L.T. Meade, career romances, horse stories, religion in any form, the Camp Fire Girls (as a movement or as books), knitting, C.S. Lewis, or any suggestion that marriage might be a valid career choice in 1910.

They also dislike Sue Barton. As near as I can tell, their objection to Sue (they think sheís English. I donít think so, but itís been a while since I read the books.) is that nursing is too important a field to be made to look attractive to girls. Go figure.

The upside is that they are very, very well read in series we donít see very often, like The Abbey Girls and the works of Angela Brazil, who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the girls-school-book genre, 1900-1950. Possibly all those hours and hours of time the authors spent reading adolescent fiction (in England it seems to have been less in bound volumes than in weekly magazines) might account for their rather sour outlook on the field. Weíve all noticed that books that began as magazine serials are often weaker than books that have always been books.

How they can have surveyed the field without running into The Five Little Peppers, The Little Colonel, or Ruth Fielding, I canít imagine.

Anyway, it makes for reading that does nasty things to oneís blood pressure. But you can pick up a lot of totally useless (and fascinating) trivia.

© 1996 Jo Anne Fatherly

(This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, the newsletter of The Phantom Friends)