syndicated trivia roundup

Settle in to solve The Mystery of the Haunted Trivia Roundup Mansion on Haunted Swamp Island…

stratemeyer :: bobbsey :: baum/gage :: boxcar :: chip :: whammy :: goosebumps :: notes

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1. In a roundup past, I touched on how the Hardy Boys books were written by a series of ghostwriters as part of the “Stratemeyer Syndicate.” I vastly underestimated its scope. The mutton-chopped Edward Stratemeyer, born 1852, was an author who, in the late 1800s realized that books for kids didn’t really exist, unless they were serving up painful and Puritanical lessons in morality. Suspecting that kids might want to read for fun instead of about how everything they are feeling is wrong, he began writing adventure stories and mysteries for children (which were seen by the purity police as poisoning the minds of America’s youth). His first series, started in 1899, was The Rover Boys, a sort of non-comedic Our Gang that spanned 30 novels in 27 years.


Very quickly two things became apparent to Stratemeyer: first, it was not the author but the copyright holder who made the most money on a successful book. Second, he couldn’t possibly write fast enough to keep up. He began crafting story outlines, then farming out the writing to hired guns. As the books grew ever more popular, he even ceded editorial control and outline writing duties as well.

Henry Ford was automating and systematizing automobile production, and Stratemeyer was doing the same for publishing. Publishing a Stratemeyer book was like an assembly line: one person wrote an outline, passed it to the author to write, who passed it to the editor. Besides the division of labor, there were also rules and formulas for consistency: all books were similar in length, featured the same characters who didn’t age, started with a summary of past adventures, and chapters ended mid-action to encourage continued reading. And finally, like Ford, you had the monetary fruits of this weird efficiency, as Stratemeyer books routinely sold for ½ the price of most other kid’s books. The only real non-Ford part was their use of the horrifically named “breeders”: when starting a new series, they released several books at once to gauge interest; consequently the list of Stratemeyer series is littered with dozens of single-digit series that never took off.

Stratemeyer died in 1930, shortly after the introduction of the syndicate’s two most popular series, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. The company passed to his daughter, who, like her father, zealously maintained editorial control and wrote many Nancy Drew titles herself. By the late 1970s, and attempted move to paperback publishing resulted in a lawsuit from business partners, which—and this is amazing—was the first time the true scope of the syndicate was made public. After Harriet Stratemeyer died in 1982, the syndicate was purchased by Simon & Schuster, but by that time they’d published more than 1200 books and 100 series. The modern Stratemeyer syndicate—that pays ghostwriters to write series books and currently holds rights to many Stratemeyer series—is appropriately named MegaBooks.

For more, please see this museum exhibition, and this New Yorker piece.


bobbsey_cover2. The second Stratemeyer series was The Bobbsey Twins. If young adult fiction is important in part for offering up role models and characters that children can identify with, the Bobbsey Twins series exists to demonstrate that WASPy rich kids need heroes too.

Scions of a lumber magnate, the two sets of twins (Bert/Nan and Flossie/Freddie) live in comfort and luxury, with a stay-at-home mom and a “Negro cook” (Dinah, whose husband Sam is the Bobbsey’s handyman) tending to them. Their “adventures” usually involve trips to All-American sites like colonial Williamsburg or summer vacations on the shore. The acme (or nadir) of this delirious and un-self-aware Pollyanna routine is The Bobbsey Twins in the Great West, in which the plot hinges on their father’s inheritance of a ranch and lumber tract (knowing a wealthy person well enough to be willed their estate is a good example of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps). Meaningful conflict does not exist in the Bobbsey universe; they merely orbit the worlds of their social lessers, wade in briefly, then return to their idyllic life—at least the Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew series have a dead parent subplot to provide even the most vanishing glimpse of psychological depth. Given the series’ literal and figurative whitewashed politics, it’s perhaps apropos that a late 1980s reprinting was published by Minstrel Books, either the most oblivious or tone-deaf name in recent history.

Despite this, the series lasted for 72 books from 1904-1979, including a 1960s re-edit to remove anachronisms both technological (horses and buggies replaced by cars) and social, including one case where a plot about a foundling “Baby May” is rewritten into a story about a baseball-playing baby elephant. Not joking.


3. A non-Stratemeyer series was Aunt Jane’s Nieces, the story of an elderly woman who sends for her three nieces to decide who will inherit her estate. The books were written by Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, and expliciltly aimed to capitalize on the success of Little Women:

Baum shall deliver to the Reilly and Britton Co. on or before March 1, 1906 the manuscript of a book for young girls on the style of the Louisa M. Alcott stories, but not so good, the authorship to be ascribed to “Ida May McFarland,” or to “Ethel Lynne” or some other mythological female.

aunt_janes_niecesI really like that they specified “not so good.” The 10-book series nearly exceeded the popularity of the Oz series, and Baum re-used the Edith Van Dyne pseudonym to publish two other series with female protagonists.

You might be aware of the scholarly (and non-scholarly) work detailing allegorical meanings of The Wizard of Oz (e.g., that the yellow brick road represents the gold standard). Perhaps some of it is specious nonsense, but Baum had interesting politics in any case. Of course, for one thing, he wrote multiple books with women as protagonists, and usually the characters weren’t just stereotypical, cardboard-cutout claptrap. He was also a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage, to the point that the first Oz sequel featured a women’s revolt, with knitting needles as the implements of men’s destruction. Finally, there’s this bizarre happening: in the 1890s he wrote two op-eds that, taken literally, offer unflinching support of the genocide of Native Americans. Modern scholars are completely unsure whether these were meant to be satirical caricatures of monstrous US policies or the ramblings a guy who really thought genocide was a-OK. The essays (you can read them here) thereby serve as an existence proof of Poe’s Law.

I lean towards sarcasm only because if he actually held those beliefs he probably would have been knifed to death by his mother-in-law, the radical Matilda Gage. Gage grew up in a house used on the Underground Railroad and ended up as one of the most radical feminists of her time (also an abolitionist and freethinker/Theosophist, among other things): an early, vocal, and standout supporter of women’s suffrage, prolific author, expert organizer, and even a strong supporter of Native American rights, in part because Iroquois society was mostly egalitarian. She was smart enough to cotton onto the temperance movement’s support of suffrage as simply a way to enfranchise a theoretically “dry” voting bloc, and distanced herself from the movement’s religious branches (just one of many reasons she hated the church). She also argued that Eli Whitney had stolen the idea for the cotton gin from a woman (I’m looking into this) and once, taking a page from felons petitioning Congress for the right to vote, petitioned Congress for “relief from her political liabilities,” by which of course she meant “not having a Y chromosome.”


boxcar_children4. The Boxcar Children books are the story of four orphaned children who make a home in an abandoned boxcar each of whom grows up to become a superhero. The first 19 of the series, starting in 1924, were written by schoolteacher Gertrude Chandler Warner (1890-1979), who made it a point that the children were unsupervised and that adults were usually secondary and non-authority figures, because, she assumed, that’s what kids would want to read. Though she put a more positive spin on “kids set loose” than William Golding, she did raise the hackles of the moral majority, who worried that the books would teach children to be disobedient. As a fellow introvert, I appreciate her motivation for placing the kids in a boxcar: “I decided to write a book just to suit myself. What would I like to do? Well, I would like to live in a freight car, or a caboose.” Also, great moments in delicate phrasing, from her wiki: In 1962 she moved to a brown-shingled house, and lived there with her companion, a retired nurse.”


chip_hilton5. The Chip Hilton series is a 24-book set about high-school sports star Chip Hilton that ran from 1948 to 1966. The books were written by Clair Bee, a hall of fame basketball coach who still holds the NCAA record for highest winning percentage. He resigned in 1951 after a point shaving scandal (in which he was not implicated), before a much less successful stint as an NBA coach (34 wins to 116 losses).

The books feature Aryan demigod/sports star Chip Hilton, who usually teaches his much more human teammates the importance of virtuousness, hard work, cooperation, and homosocial bonding rituals, often just in time for them to win the state championship in a suitably American sport. In short, it is Hoosiers in book form. That’s a little unfair, since the books actually tackled (albeit superficially) some social issues, including the struggles of black and Chinese players joining the team. Of course, the mere existence of a person of color passes for moderately progressive by 1950s standards, so… Also, in what is perhaps the single most common thread to book series for adolescent men, the All-American male lead “doesn’t have a girlfriend, and spends much of his time with his buddies: “Biggie,” “Soapy,” “Speed” and “Fireball.” Literary/culture scholars out there: is there a definitive Freudian analysis of early-to-mid 20th century young adult literature?


6. The first Encyclopedia Brown was published in 1963, the last in 2012, and spanned a total of 29 books by Donald J. Sobol. It’s inspired a comic strip, TV series, and an in-development movie. The short-lived HBO series was directed by Savage Steve Holland, better known as the 24-year-old wunderkind director of the John Cusack vehicle Better Off Dead. This is a completely irrelevant tangent except that Holland’s first big showbiz break was as the designer of the Whammy on Press Your Luck:

no whammies no whammies


7. In the six years from 1992 to 1997 fully sixty-two Goosebumps young-adult horror titles were published. All were written by R.L. Stine, who is in fact a real person. The books were so popular that they were selling 4 million a month at their peak and Stine was raking in $40 million annually. A 2008 study found that children ages 7-12 had an 82% brand awareness for the series, and the mere existence of that study and that sentence and the idea of “brand awareness” in seven year olds is like my own personal one-sentence horror story called Capitalism is a Totalizing System.

Some actual Goosebumps titles include: Piano Lessons Can be Murder, Why I’m Afraid of Bees, My Hairiest Adventure, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, It Came from Beneath the Sink (should be a PSA about household poisons), Bad Hare Day, The Blob that Ate Everyone, I Live in Your Basement, Escape from the Carnival of Horrors, Beware of the Purple Peanut Butter, Secret Agent Grandma, Trapped in the Circus of Fear, Little Shop of Hamsters. And finally, my favorite, because it sounds legitimately, existentially horrifying: Alone in Snakebite Canyon.


8. Some additional juvenile fiction series notes:

  • Danny Dunn, a science whiz. The 15-book series features a character named Euclid Bullfinch and titles like Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine and Danny Dunn and the Universal Glue.
  • Christopher Cool: TEEN Agent, an adolescent James Bond series.
  • Bronc Burnett, another teen sports star. Characters include the sheriff Pole Drinkwater and villains Slug Langenegger and Sluice Derrick.
  • The 1980s series Hawkeye Collins & Amy Adams features a pair of pubescent Minnesotan crimestoppers. The fourteen book series is notable mostly for featuring a character named Mrs. von Buttermore and for the wonderful titles, many involving food: The Case of the Chocolate Snatcher, The Secret of the Tomato Pincher The Case of the Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies, The Case of the Suspicious Soybeans, The Mystery of the Missing Turkey, and The Mystery of the Filched Frittata, but not the last one. Full list here.
  • Although many books featured women as protagonists, their roles were tediously stereotypical. Consider Vicki Barr, Flight Stewardess and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse (who both solved mysteries), as well as Sue Barton, Senior Nurse (who didn’t solve mysteries, but was an outstanding nurse…with a doctor husband). Then there’s Connie Blair, who solves mysteries while using her (groan) feminine wiles to work her way up the corporate ladder. Then there’s Trixie Belden, who…solves mysteries. And Beverly Gray, a series that follows Beverly through high school, college, and a career as a reporter before she begins…solving mysteries. Or Ginny Gordon, Judy Bolton, Kay Tracey, and Penny Parker who all…solve mysteries, as do the Dana Girls. Not a lot of adventuring, sports stars, or science whizzes among the books for girls.

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