syndicated trivia roundup

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

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1. I read once that the Hardy Boys books were written by ghostwriters as part of what’s called the “Stratemeyer Syndicate.” I vastly underestimated its scope. The mutton-chopped Edward Stratemeyer, in the late 1800s, realized that books for kids didn’t really exist, except for those serving up Puritanical lessons in morality. Reasoning that children might like to read for fun instead of being told that everything they are feeling is sinful, he set to writing adventure stories. His first series, The Rover Boys, was a proto-Our Gang that spanned 30 novels in 27 years, starting in 1899. The purity police immediately assailed him for distressing immorality.


The books sold, though, and Stratemeyer realized two things: First, the copyright holder made more money than the author of a successful book. Second, he couldn’t write fast enough to keep up. So he crafted story outlines, then farmed out the writing to hired guns. His success was so great that soon he ceded even those duties.

If Henry Ford automated and systematized automobile production, Stratemeyer did the same for books. It was an assembly line: one person wrote an outline, who passed it to the author, who passed it to the editor, who passed it to the printer. And besides the division of labor, Stratemeyer also used rules and formulas to ensure an almost franchised consistency: books were similar in length, featured the same characters who never aged, always started with a summary of past adventures, and always ended chapters mid-action to encourage further reading. Like Ford, this hyper-efficient Taylorization bore monetary fruit: syndicate books sold for ½ the price of most other kid’s books. Really the only deviation from Fordian production was the use of the distressingly named “breeders:” when starting a series, several books were released 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 (she also wrote several Nancy Drew books). 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 and practice of the syndicate was made public. It had been a secret for seventy years. After Harriet Stratemeyer died in 1982, the syndicate was purchased by Simon & Schuster, after publishing 1200+ books in 100+ series. The modern incarnation—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.

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bobbsey_cover2. After The Rover Boys, Stratemeyer’s second 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 WASP rich kids also need heroes.

Scions of a lumber magnate, the two sets of twins (Bert/Nan and Flossie/Freddie) live in comfort and luxury, tended to by a stay-at-home mom and a “Negro cook.” Their “adventures” involve trips to colonial Williamsburg, summer vacations on the shore, and trips to exotic locales, like an actual city. The acme—or nadir—of this deliriously un-self-aware Pollyanna routine is The Bobbsey Twins in the Great West, in which their father inherits a ranch and lumber tract; teaching the children an important lesson about hard work, bootstraps, and the importance of having an unknown wealthy uncle.

Meaningful conflict does not exist in the Bobbsey universe; they orbit the worlds of their social and economic lessers, observe them like so many zoo animals, then return to their idyllic life. At least Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children had a dead parent subplot to provide even a vanishing glimpse of psychological depth. Given the series literal and figurative whitewashed politics, it’s fitting that a late 1980s reprinting was published by Minstrel Books, either the most oblivious or tone-deaf name in recent history. And yet the series comprised 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. That’s not a joke.

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3. A non-Stratemeyer series was Aunt Jane’s Nieces, in which an elderly woman 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 explicitly leveraged 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 potential allegorical meanings of The Wizard of Oz—for example, that the yellow brick road represents the gold standard, and that William Jennings Bryan is the cowardly lion. I can’t tell how much of that is specious, but Baum himself had…interesting…politics. Of course he wrote multiple books with female protagonists who weren’t entirely stereotypical cardboard cutouts. He was a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage—to an extent that the first Oz sequel featured a women’s revolt, with knitting needles as the implements of men’s destruction. Finally, there are these bizarre op-eds he wrote in the 1890s. Taken at face value, they offer unflinching support of Native American genocide. Modern scholars cannot decide if they were meant to be caricatures of monstrous US policies, or serious defenses of genocide—meaning that the essays (you can read them here) are an existence proof of Poe’s Law.

Personally I lean towards “satire” because if he’d actually held those beliefs Baum might have been knifed to death by his mother-in-law: Matilda Gage. Gage grew up in a house used on the Underground Railroad and ended up a true radical: an early, vocal, and standout supporter of women’s suffrage, prolific author, expert organizer, and supporter of Native American rights (in part because Iroquois society was mostly egalitarian). She was canny enough to realize that the temperance movement’s support of suffrage was meant only to enfranchise a theoretically “dry” voting bloc, and distanced herself from the suffrage movement’s religious branches. Later, she argued that Eli Whitney stole the idea for the cotton gin from a woman, which I can’t verify. Once, taking a page from felons petitioning Congress for the right to vote, she petitioned Congress for “relief from her political liabilities,” by which she meant “not having a Y chromosome.”

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boxcar_children4. The Boxcar Children books are the story of four orphaned children who make a home in an abandoned boxcar. 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.”

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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, 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—Hoosiers in book form. As is typical for this genre, 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?

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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

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7. From 1992 to 1997, sixty-two Goosebumps young-adult horror titles were published. All were written by R.L. Stine, who is a real person. At their peak, the series sold 4 million books a month and Stine was making $40 million annually. A 2008 study found that children aged 7-12 had an 82% brand awareness for the Goosebumps series. I have no idea if that’s “good” or not, but the mere existence of the study and the entire concept of “brand awareness” applied to seven year olds is my own personal 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.

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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 featured a character named Mrs. von Buttermore and for food-based titles: 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.
  • Finally, some tediously stereotypical women protagonists. Consider Vicki Barr, Flight Stewardess and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse (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 feminine wiles to climb 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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