Series Book Spotlight: The Moonstone Castle Mystery: My First Nancy Drew

The Moonstone Castle Mystery
Carolyn Keene
First published 1963

My history with this book
The Moonstone Castle Mystery was my very first Nancy Drew book. I was around 6 or 7, and I was with my father in a used bookstore. I was bored, until I noticed a bookcase filled with books with yellow spines. I started looking at them, and my father said I could pick one out to buy. I remember being very undecided because all of the covers looked so appealing, but I eventually decided on The Moonstone Castle Mystery, because I was really into castles, and the image of the three women approaching the castle intrigued me.

My thoughts
This book was interesting to re-read. I was a huge Nancy Drew fan as a child, and I’ve begun working my way through the original 56 books, some of which I’m reading for the first time. I’m writing about this one because it was my introduction to Nancy Drew, but it’s really an average entry in the series.

If you know nothing about Nancy Drew, she’s a teenage girl who solves mysteries. Her father is a famous attorney, and Nancy often gets involved in his cases. She’s usually assisted by her two sidekicks, “plump” Bess and “tomboyish” George. Nancy is described as “attractive” and “titian-haired.” She’s nearly perfect in every way, and she always solves the crime.

The Moonstone Castle Mystery has two common Nancy Drew tropes: elderly women being bilked of their fortunes and a long-lost heiress. Carson Drew is working with a couple who are searching for their lost granddaughter. Fifteen years earlier, the couple moved to Africa (just Africa, not an actual African country) to become missionaries, but they were taken captive by a hostile tribe. When they were finally freed, they learned that their granddaughter had disappeared after her other grandmother died (the child’s parents were also dead). While her father is investigating the case, Nancy receives a moonstone in the mail from an img_2739unknown sender. It soon becomes clear that the two mysteries are connected, and Nancy, George, and Bess travel to the nearby town of Deep River to do some investigating.

As an adult reading this one, I had to suspend disbelief quite a few times. Nancy walks into a bank, and the manager is perfectly willing to hand out confidential information. The police are just as forthcoming, looking up license numbers for her and praising her for finding her stolen car (something they weren’t able to do). I’m sure privacy laws weren’t quite so strict in 1963, but it’s still hard to imagine authority figures so easily cooperating with a teenage girl. Of course, that’s part of Nancy Drew’s appeal. Children are used to not being taken seriously, and it’s wish fulfillment to read about (and identify with) a young woman who has authority figures paying so much attention to her.

I enjoyed re-reading this one. It’s hardly the best mystery I’ve ever read (or even the best Nancy Drew), but it was enjoyable enough. There’s something comforting about Nancy Drew. She always solves the mystery and she doesn’t even break a sweat.

Does it hold up?
It holds up about as well as any Nancy Drew, but all classic Nancy Drew books may feel dated to today’s kids. This mystery in particular could probably have been solved in no time with internet access and a cell phone. Also, kids may find it odd that Nancy doesn’t go to school or have a job.

Is there any objectionable content?
Nothing terrible, but there’s some mild shaming of poor Bess for liking food. (And Africa being considered a country.)

Can you read it aloud?
It’s probably a bit long for that, and kids in the target age range are probably too old to enjoy being read it.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Sure, but I wouldn’t be heartbroken if he weren’t interested.

The book is still in print and use copies are plentiful. It’s also available as an ebook.

Things Get Very Uncomfortable: The Secret Mountain

The Secret Mountain
Enid Blyton
First published in 1941

My history with this book
I loved Enid Blyton’s books as a child, and I remember this being one of my favorites, so much so that I sought out the same 70s paperback edition that I had once owned and ended up buying a much earlier hardcover edition as well. I didn’t remember much about the plot, beyond it being about a group of children who travel to Africa to rescue their missing parents and that it was very exciting.Secret Mountain new

My thoughts
Enid Blyton is a much-beloved British author of children’s book. She was incredibly prolific, writing over 700 books, and wildly popular (over 600 million books sold). She’s not as well known in the US, but her books are huge in the UK and many other parts of the world. I became a fan because I spent my childhood summers in the Irish countryside with my grandparents. The nearest town was quite small and didn’t have a lot of books available, but Enid Blyton’s books were always plentiful. My grandparents bought many Blyton books for me, and I borrowed others from my cousins. My time spent traipsing around the countryside with my cousins was not unlike the idyllic country adventures Blyton portrays in many of her books, so it makes sense that I loved these books at the time.

I’ve read a couple of Enid Blyton books since I started this project, and although they’re fairly simplistic, I enjoyed them, and I was looking forward to re-reading The Secret Mountain, which I recall liking very much as a child. So far, all of the books I’ve re-read have held up reasonably well. Sadly, The Secret Mountain does not.

It’s the story of four young children, Jack, Peggy, Mike, and Nora. I assumed the four were siblings, but later in the book, it’s mentioned in passing with not much of an explanation that Jack isn’t actually a sibling of the other three, but he lives with them. I assume this was explained in one of the earlier books (The Secret Mountain is the third book in a series, but like most of Blyton’s books, it’s not strictly necessary to read them in order). Their parents, Captain and Mrs. Arnold, are famous aviators. The book begins with the parents flying off to Africa for an adventure. Within a few days, the Arnolds have disappeared, and the children decide to go to Africa to search for them.

This would seem like a tall order for four young children (their ages aren’t specified, but they seem to be around 9 to 12), but the foursome just happen to be friends with Prince Paul of Baronia, a child who has a plane and two servants at his disposal. This book is total childhood wish fulfillment. The Arnold children are able to slip away from their guardian with no trouble, and Prince Paul has unlimited resources and servants who apparently must follow his every order, no matter how dangerous.

So, they head off to Africa, and that’s where things g0t problematic for me. The country is never named, and there’s no mention of the fact that Africa isn’t a country, but a continent with many countries and cultures. But this is a children’s book written in 1941, so perhaps I shouldn’t expect any nuance on this topic. All of the African characters are portrayed as rather simple or evil. Or in some case, simple AND evil. The general attitude toward the African characters feels paternal. It’s pretty creepy, but it’s also not totally unexpected in a book written by a British author in the waning days of the colonial era. The children are joined on their adventure by a young African boy, Mafumu. Mafumu is portrayed as very intelligent (he picks up a lot of English in just a few days with the children), and he’s invaluable to their search. But he’s also very credulous. He develops a bad case of hero worship for Jack after the British boy tries to defend Mafumu from his uncle who beats him at the drop of a hat. That episode leads to this passage:

Secret Mountain old“He says he will be your slave forever,” said Ranni with a grin. “He says he will leave his uncle and his tribe and come and follow the wonderful white boy all his life. He says you are a king of boys!”

Yes, really. My jaw dropped when I read this passage. I’ve come to expect some occasional racially insensitive language when I read older books, but this bit is beyond the pale. I didn’t remember this at all from reading the book as a child. I was probably 7 or 8 when I read The Secret Mountain. Did I not understand the implications of this quote? Did I even truly understand slavery at that age? Probably not. This book is seems to be intended for kids age 10 and up. I tended to read a few years ahead of my age, and I glossed over things I didn’t quite understand.

The Secret Mountain is the first book I’ve re-read for this project that I can’t recommend. If you’re ready to have discussions about slavery and other horrors of the world with your children, there are plenty of books with actual literary merit that would be a better place to start.

Many of Enid Blyton’s books are still in print, and the current editions have had some revisions to remove objectionable language. The Secret Mountain is currently out of print, but there have been recent editions. I don’t know the extent of the changes made to The Secret Mountain, but I would hope the above-mentioned passage has been cut or rewritten.

Does it hold up?
Sadly, no.

Is there any objectionable content?
See above.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Would I want my kid to read it?

The book is currently out of print, but there were many editions, and it’s not hard to find used copies.

The Joy of Beezus and Ramona

Beezus and Ramona
Copyright 1955
Still in print

My history with this book
My second grade teacher read Beezus and Ramona aloud to our class, and I remember liking it. I went on to read a number of other books by Beverly Cleary, including some of the other Ramona books.Beezus and Ramona

My thoughts
This book is delightful. It’s funny and charming, and I loved it. It’s the story of 9-year-old Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby and her adorable but also very annoying little sister, 4-year-old Ramona.

Cleary is a master at making her child characters sound realistic. Ramona is hilarious but also a total pain, and you really get Beezus’ annoyance with her. Beezus is a sweet kid, who struggles with the fact that sometimes she just can’t stand her little sister. Adults find Ramona adorable, and Beezus doesn’t get it.

There’s not a ton of plot, and it’s more a character study. Each chapter is an episode of Ramona being adorably/awful and Beezus patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) dealing with it. Ramona destroys a library book that Beezus checked out for her, disrupts Beezus’ art class, locks a dog in the bathroom, eats just one bite each out of a whole crate of apples, organizes an impromptu party, and nearly ruins Beezus’ birthday.

The apple chapter is particularly funny. Ramona takes just one bite of each apple because “the first bite tastes best,” and although Beezus is beyond annoyed, she has to admit that Ramona is actually right. With the help of her Aunt Beatrice, Beezus begins to understand that Ramona is acting out to get attention.

I love the contrast between the two sisters. Beezus is a nice, well-behaved child and very aware of what people think of her. Ramona is a total show-off. She loves attention, positive or negative, and she doesn’t care at all what people think of her. Some of that is being 4, but some of it is just her personality and that becomes even more apparent in the later books.

I was surprised by how contemporary this book felt. It was published in 1955, but it doesn’t feel dated at all. It holds up and feels modern in a way that many other books of its time don’t. The only scene that struck me as slightly odd is a scene where the mother and Beezus are washing their hair in the sink. I assume they don’t have a shower, which seems odd now, but was perhaps more common back then. It’s not important to the plot and I imagine kids might not even notice anything odd about it.

Does it hold up?

Is there any objectionable content?
Nope. The only mildly problematic thing is Beezus wondering why Ramona likes un-girly things like books about steam shovels, but Ramona is way too awesome to be constrained by traditional gender norms.

Can you read it aloud?
I would say yes since my first experience with the book was having it read to me in school. It’s a good length for reading aloud. It’s available as an audiobook and would be good for a road trip.

Do I want my kid to read it?
Yes! My husband and I both looking forward to reading this series with our son.

It’s still in print and there are ebook and audiobook versions available. It should also be widely available in libraries. My edition has really cute illustrations by Tracy Dockray.