Mystery Books in Our Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books: Nancy Drew, Mickey Mouse and New Releases

February 16, 2022 | Myrna

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From the famous Sherlock Holmes to elementary school amateurs, children's mystery fiction has a long and varied history. Stories range from lurid thrillers to charming domestic mysteries, but all these books ask and answer a simple question “whodunit?”

Uncover the secrets of children's mystery and detective stories at Meddling Kids: A Children's Mystery Book Exhibit. The exhibit runs from January 31 to April 16, 2022 at the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books (located on the 4th floor of Lillian H. Smith Branch). This companion post gives a sneak peek — or a quick recap if you missed it — of some of the books displayed in the exhibit.

The Mystery of the Stratemeyer Syndicate

One family and an army of ghostwriters dominated 20th-century children’s mystery fiction. In 1905, writer and editor Edward Stratemeyer established the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The company would go on to produce Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins and many other popular series.

Books from the Stratemeyer Syndicate were formulaic. Children’s literature scholar Deidre Johnson describes the Stratemeyer Syndicate formula as, “a group of personable, young, upper middle class protagonists travel to different locations, finding adventures and sometimes a light mystery.” Edward Stratemeyer would write series and book outlines. Once a publisher was secured, a ghostwriter would complete the story. In the early days of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, ghostwriters were well compensated. But over the decades ghostwriter pay actually decreased, rather than rising with inflation.

Covers of The Clue of the Tapping Heels and The Bungalow Mystery by Carolyn Keene
Ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson ghostwrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books. Books written by Benson include The Clue of the Tapping Heels (1939) and The Bungalow Mystery (1930)

The Stratemeyer Syndicate managed to remain successful by re-inventing their already popular series. In the 1950s and 60s, Edward Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet Adams, oversaw the revision of the company’s most popular books. Ghostwriters modernized clothing and technology, and streamlined the books’ plots. They also removed some (but not all) racist content. The plots of some series were completely re-imagined. The Bobbsey Twins series originally focused on domestic and schoolyard conflicts. In the 1960s that changed, the Bobbsey Twins books were rewritten as mysteries. 

Two covers of The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. Dixon with different cover illustrations
Originally published in 1927, Hardy Boys book The Tower Treasure was rewritten to appeal to a new generation of readers.
Covers of The Bobbsey Twins at School by Laura Lee Hope and The Bobbsey Twins' Mystery at School by Laura Lee Hope
When The Bobbsey Twins at School (1913) was rewritten as The Bobbsey Twins' Mystery at School (1962), an art heist plot was added. 

The Mystery of the Big Little Books

Big Little Books were originally devised as a way of using up leftover paper from other children’s books printed at the Whitman Publishing Company. The first Big Little Books were released in 1932 and the format quickly became successful. The Great Depression created a demand for inexpensive forms of entertainment. Topics ranged from celebrity biographies to westerns to cartoon adaptations, but mystery and detective stories were always popular.

Dick Tracy, the Detective (1932) was the first Big Little Book ever produced. The book compiles newspaper comics starring Dick Tracy. Created by Chester Gould, the hard-boiled detective Dick Tracy first appeared in newspaper comics. Dick Tracy was the first Big Little Books star, but Mickey Mouse was the most prolific. Twenty-nine books featuring Mickey Mouse were produced. Mickey Mouse, The Detective (1934) was the first Mickey Mouse Big Little Book. It features Mickey and, in his first-ever appearance, a character named Dippy Dawg who would later be known as Goofy. In this (typically silly) adventure, the pair start a detective agency, tracking down a ring of counterfeiters via some stolen flannel underwear.

Cover of The Adventures of Dick Tracy Detective and Mickey Mouse the Detective
Dick Tracy, the Detective (1932) and Mickey Mouse, The Detective (1934) star two of the most popular Big Little Book characters. 

The Mystery of the Animal Detectives

Not all detectives have to be human. Four-legged detectives are a fixture of children's mystery fiction. As any of these furry sleuths will tell you, they’re just as clever as their human counterparts. 

Mickey fits right in with the many mouse detectives who populate children's books. Like Basil of Baker Street (1958), this book stars Basil the “famous sleuth of mousedom.” Basil learns his craft at the literal feet of the great Sherlock Holmes, while living in the cellar of 221B Baker Street. The tiny detective's adventures inspired the Disney film The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

The most popular children's book detective of the 21st century is also a mouse. Since 2000, mouse sleuth Geronimo Stilton and his many relatives have starred in more than 200 books, which have sold 180 million-plus copies. Geronimo's books are written as autobiographical accounts of his adventures, with Geronimo himself listed as the series author. Originally written in Italian, Geronimo has crisscrossed the world both in translation and in the plots of his stories. 

Covers of Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye and Thea Stilton and the Dragon's Code
Some books in the Geronimo Stilton series star Thea Stilton, Geronimo's sister.

Pig detectives are another popular trope in children's mystery fiction. In Richard Scarry's The Great Pie Robbery (1969), Detectives Sam Cat and Dudley Pig investigate the theft of Ma Dog’s cherry pies. A pig butler cracks the case in Piggins (1987), the amateur porcine detective solves a dinner party jewelry heist. 

“Renaissance pig” Freddy featured in 26 books written by Walter R. Brooks between 1927 and 1958. In that time, Freddy played football, ran for president and consorted with Martians. He added detective to his lengthy resume in Freddy the Detective (1946). Inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Freddy becomes a detective and solves several barnyard mysteries.

Cover of The Great Pie Robbery by Richard Scarry
Dudley Pig solves mysteries in The Great Pie Robbery (1969).

Recent reads

Alongside historical children's books, the Meddling Kids exhibit features recent favourites with appeal for readers young and old.

Cover of The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

The Parker Inheritance (2018) by Varian Johnson

Is it possible to solve a family mystery with an old letter sent to Candice Miller's grandmother? Candice and her new friend Brandon begin to search for clues. Soon they discover Lambert, South Carolina's dark history during the era of Jim Crow and Segregation.

Cover of The Case of Windy Lake by Michael Hutchinson

The Case of Windy Lake (2019) by Michael Hutchinson

Nicknamed the Mighty Muskrats, Sam, Otter, Atim and Chickadee are growing up on the Windy Lake First Nation. They are drawn into a mystery when a visiting archaeologist goes missing. This is the first book in the Mighty Muskrats Mystery series by Misipawistik Cree Nation member Michael Hutchinson.

Cover of Eye of the Crow by Shane Peacock

Eye of the Crow (2007) by Shane Peacock

We meet a young and already highly observant Sherlock Holmes in Shane Peacock’s The Boy Sherlock Holmes series. In this installment, 13-year-old Sherlock investigates his first murder. 

Cover of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny-- detectives extraordinaire! translated from the rabbit by Polly Horvath

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny — Detectives Extraordinaire! (2012) by Polly Horvath

Madeline arrives home to find that her parents are missing, possibly kidnapped. Luckily, she meets Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, who have decided to take up detective work.

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Post adapted from Meddling Kids: A Children's Mystery Book Exhibit (2022) curated by Wendy Banks, Amber Burkholder, Roberta Duarte and Myrna Scully-Ashton. Meddling Kids features content from It’s Elementary: Children’s Detective Stories from The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books (2001) curated by Leslie McGrath.