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Nancy Drew Novels Got Me Reading

Barney Brantingham Reflects on the Few Books in His Childhood

Photo: Courtesy

I was born with a book in my hand, and for all I know, it was the only book on the South Side of Chicago. No one read, not even my parents, who belonged to a book club. Oh, they had a few old books around, but nothing a child would want to bother with.

There were no books in my school room, but the school had a “library,” where you weren’t even allowed to enter, much less actually borrow a book. Once a year, my class was taken down to the huge, high-ceilinged room for a lecture by the enormous librarian. Do you think she regaled us with warm recollections of stories by the great authors? No. She lectured us about the Dewey Decimal System.

Meanwhile, forbidden books tauntingly lined the shelves, guarded by glass cabinets. There was a public library, however, about three miles away, much too far for me to get to on my own. When I was a child, our family had no car, and when my parents finally acquired one, there was no thought of wasting gas to take me to the library and wait around while I wandered the aisles of treasures.

Then I fell in love. Just down the alley, on the second floor of an apartment building, lived a dark-haired beauty named Jane Hamilton. Jane was too old for me, about 17 at the time. Her boyfriend would come to pick her up in a shiny convertible.

Jane was my queen, but not for the reason you might imagine. She owned a collection of Nancy Drew mysteries, which featured a 16-year-old who had adventures. The author, guided by a publisher, was a 25-year-old Iowan named Mildred Wirt Benson. She hit the bookstores in 1930 with such titles as The Secret of the Old Clock, the Hidden Staircase, and The Bungalow Mystery. All were written under the name Carolyn Keene.

Although Nancy was aimed at girl readers, I gobbled up Jane’s library of the young sleuth, realizing that the “adventures” were pretty softcore. But as a kid, it was enough for me. Enough, that is, until the Sunday newspapers arrived with real-life crime splashed across the pages. 

We eventually moved, and I left Jane Hamilton and her books behind. I wish I could see her one more time and thank her for the hours of happiness she gave me. 


4•1•1| Planned Parenthood California Central Coast (PPCCC) will host the 45th annual Mary Jane McCord Book Sale, named in memory of one of its longest-serving and most dedicated volunteers, Sept. 19-29 at Earl Warren Showgrounds. Visit ppcccbooksale.com for more information.

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