One of the reasons the detective genre is so beloved for so many of us, I think, is because we grow up on mysteries and detective stories.
Nancy Drew looms large when it comes to detective fiction for young people, about young people. I’ve been avoiding writing about Nancy, I must admit, because I fear I never really liked her when I was a kid. (It might have been because I was reading in the 1980s, when the action had shifted to The Nancy Drew Files. Apparently this incarnation of the teen detective has been roundly rubbished.)
Drew is surely the detective character most cited as a proto-feminist heroine, despite some super dodgy race issues with the early books, and has famously inspired women such as Sonia Sotomayor and Hillary Clinton. There is even a feminist hip hop group called Nancy Drew Crew.
Who are the other female detective characters from children’s/young adult literature?
Obviously, being English, I grew up on the Famous Five and Secret Seven by Enid Blyton, both of which involve posses of young amateur sleuths solving crime and going on picnics.
Problematic doesn’t begin to describe Blyton’s books, as most people will be aware: written over 50 years ago, they reflected the attitudes of their time, with plenty of racism and sexism, and also her protagonists are almost exclusively upper class.
Despite there being a full seven child detectives in the Secret Seven books, the girls are pathetic hangers on, and there are loads of negative comments that don’t rise much above “girls suck”.
The Famous Five was arguably as bad: the five are made up of three siblings, Julian, Dick and Anne; and their cousin, the wonderful, cross, independent “tomboy” George and her dog Timmy. Anne, who is a limp noodle, represents the ideal of what girls are meant to be; George pushes against these boundaries. George refuses to be called by her given name Georgina and is represented as wanting to be a boy.
I Was a Teenage Book Geek has written a great post about George and the Famous Five, which I think makes some wonderful points about why these books were so appealing, and continue to have significance for feminists, despite their many flaws:
Sure, they were formulaic, and the main girl character Anne was a total sap, but I loved the fact that the children in these stories had so much freedom. I mean, they could go sailing by themselves and sleep on an island all night and that was just fine. They had the space and time to get into adventures, whereas kids of my generation were so closely guarded that there was absolutely zero chance of us stumbling across shipwrecked gold.
Coming up to the modern day, there are some contemporary examples that can perhaps be enjoyed with slightly fewer caveats, such as the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer, which centres on the cases solved by Sherlock’s younger sister. Although it does indulge in some tropes and cliches, her mum is a suffragette! In an interview with Book Yurt, Springer was asked if it was intimidating to encroach on the Sherlock Holmes canon, and she said:
Not at all, because while Doyle was a very good writer, he was also quite a misogynist. Occasionally and with difficulty he represents women positively, but much more often he has Holmes dismiss them as hopelessly vapid, hysterical and illogical. I exploited with glee Sherlock’s complete ignorance of the feminine sphere of Victorian society.
Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart Quartet gives us another mystery-solving young woman character—albiet one who mostly solves mysteries about her own life—and then there are the Wilma Tenderfoot books by Emma Kennedy.
I’ve really struggled to find examples of young female detective characters of color. I did find a mention of the Screech Owl series, which involves a much more diverse ice hockey team of children who solve mysteries. But the info on this series online seems pretty limited.
Chris Routledge wrote about the appeal of detective stories for children and the importance these stories can have, which really underlines what a hole is being left by authors:
While detective stories almost by definition must deal in uncertainties, mistaken identities and ambiguity, for child detectives the process of detection is more than an unravelling of clues. Many child detectives, including Horowitz’s young spy Alex Rider, and Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, are orphans, or in some other way abandoned by or separated from their adult carers. Iconoclastic detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, whose whole identity is defined by his rational method and his commitment to the science of deduction, is not personally challenged by the act of detecting itself. For many child detectives however the pursuit of criminals also involves the exploration of their relationships with adults, with their understanding of the world, and with their own identities.
Being a bit advanced in years at 29 to read all that much young adult and children’s fiction, I’m a bit clueless when it comes to the most contemporary examples. What were/are your favorite children’s/young adult detectives?