The best books about beloved children’s books

Melanie Rehak Author Of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
By Melanie Rehak

Who am I?

I spent my childhood reading for pleasure, for escapism, for humor, for reassurance, for different views of the world, and even out of sheer boredom sometimes when there was nothing else to do. I have no doubt it’s what made me into a writer. In retrospect, it makes total sense that my first book was about the history and power of a children’s series. When I found myself immersed in not just my old Nancy Drews but the fascinating stories of the people and times that produced her, it was like being back in my childhood bedroom again, only this time with the experience to understand how what I read fit into the larger story of America, feminism, and literature. I hope the books I’ve recommended will inspire you to revisit your old favorites with a new eye.

I wrote...

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

By Melanie Rehak,

Book cover of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

What is my book about?

A plucky “titian-haired” sleuth solved her first mystery in 1930. Eighty million books later, Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the sixties (when she was taken up with a vengeance by women’s libbers) to enter the pantheon of American girlhood. As beloved by girls today as she was by their grandmothers, Nancy Drew has both inspired and reflected the changes in her readers’ lives. Here, in a narrative with all the vivid energy and page-turning pace of Nancy’s adventures, Melanie Rehak solves an enduring literary mystery: Who created Nancy Drew? And how did she go from pulp heroine to icon?  
The brainchild of children’s book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy was brought to life by two women: Mildred Wirt Benson, a pioneering journalist from Iowa, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a well-bred wife and mother who took over as CEO after her father died. In this century-spanning story, Rehak traces their roles—and Nancy’s—in forging the modern American woman.

The books I picked & why

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Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

By Leslie Brody,

Book cover of Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

Why this book?

As a native New Yorker and lifelong fan of Harriet the Spy (one among legions) reading the product of Leslie Brody’s detective work into the life of her creator is a special pleasure. Born in 1928, Fitzhugh was the product of a high society Memphis marriage that ended in scandal. She went on to live a vibrant, turbulent life in the queer artist and writers scene in New York. It makes total sense that someone who straddled so many different worlds had such a deep understanding of the multiple lives we all lead, and such a keen ability to perceive other people, all of which she poured into her characters. I also recommend her other incredible YA novel, Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, which tackles race, children’s rights, and the profound beauty of tap dancing.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By Caroline Fraser,

Book cover of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Why this book?

I read the Little House on the Prairie books obsessively as a kid, and could still recall whole passages and every illustration when I read them to my sons decades later. But the history behind them, both the period of America's development they depict and the story of how they came to be, is full of complications and attitudes the series elides or outrightly ignores. I treasure this book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, for the deep context it gives about the political and social context surrounding these stories and the true history of the Ingalls and Wilder families. Meeting them in full provides a chance to think about the series with a different perspective.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

By Leonard S. Marcus,

Book cover of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

Why this book?

I love letter collections and this one is among my very favorites. From 1940 to 1973, Ursula Nordstrom was the director of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harpers, one of New York’s biggest publishing houses. Her letters to the authors she worked with are so funny, sharp, and wise that I always wish I’d had a chance to work with her. Even if I had, though, the competition was stiff as her authors included pretty much every single person who wrote and/or illustrated what we now think of as a children’s classic. To name just a few: Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little; Where the Wild Things Are; Goodnight Moon; The Little House on the Prairie Books, and many, many more. You’ll learn how they all came to be and also close the book feeling like you had a great, gossipy publishing lunch in mid-20th century New York City. Mad Men, but for children’s books.

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography

By David Michaelis,

Book cover of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography

Why this book?

I truly can’t imagine what my life would have been like with Peanuts, so it was no surprise to learn that the man who created it was a complex, flawed person—just like all of us. For me, Peanuts was the gateway not just to comics and independent kids whose parents never seemed to be around, but to jazz through the TV shows. This is also a model biography, and a pleasure to read on that count.

Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story

By Evan I. Schwartz,

Book cover of Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story

Why this book?

Though I love The Wizard of Oz, I’ve always thought the best book in the series is Ozma of Oz (close second: TikTok of Oz). Still, this book shows where the book most people think of as Baum’s masterpiece came from and how his imagination was fueled by the trends, triumphs, and politics of 19th century America. His personal life was far from the fantasy depicted in Oz, which is perhaps why so many of his characters find themselves in great peril.

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