May 21



Have you ever played Nancy Drew the Spy On the Prairie? This game filled my fourth-grade afternoons. It’s best explained as a mash-up of storylines from three of my favorite literary heroes at the time—Nancy Drew, Harriet M. Welsch, and Laura Ingalls—intertwined as only a bookish ten-year-old can. Each day brought a new adventure and a new mystery to solve—all with the same beloved characters.

After school, my best friend Lauren and I would meet in my backyard. The first order of business was who got to be Nancy. Without question, the confident independent sleuth was the most coveted role. Luckily for me, Lauren was often content to play practical, tomboy George. Neither of us ever entertained the role of easily-frightened, flirty Bess. Why would we? We were girls who wanted adventure!

Next, the notebooks came out. We each carried a tiny spiral bound book with lined paper to record our observations, much like Harriet the Spy. Very official! We believed in truth. We believed in facts. (Although, in our truth, the facts tended to have a healthy dose of imagination mixed in.)

Then we took refuge in our beloved Little House on The Prairie—in this case, the musty wooden playhouse my parents had constructed from a kit years earlier. In our minds, the house was no longer positioned on a manicured New Jersey lawn. Instead, we lived in the 1800s on the Midwestern prairie in one room with Ma, Pa, Mary, and Carrie. It was cold, and we were hungry. Pa had had a bad harvest. Or the locust had come. Or a hail the size of his fist. The Oreos we’d brought outside with us would need to be rationed for the long winter ahead, requiring every ounce of self-control to nibble instead of pulling off the cookie top and gobbling the cream.

Finally, the mystery. What would it be that day? The Case of the Vanishing Cardinal. The Secret of the Rotting Log. The Haunted Mailbox. Lauren and I both had complete sets of Nancy Drew books lined up in numerical order on our shelves, and we were well-versed in constructing appropriate mystery titles. (Next to my yellow-cover books sat my mother’s tattered blue-cover books, inside which her maiden name was written in ink. Her childish handwriting was something I often wondered over—a glimpse of someone worlds away from the very-adult mother I knew.)

Lauren and I—no, we were Nancy and George–set out to solve that afternoon’s mystery, our notebooks in hand. We pretended to travel in Nancy’s convertible from our house on the prairie to various clues around the yard. We’d bring out the radio, convinced that the Bee Gees were really Pa fiddling. We spied on the neighbors. Like I said, the game was a true mash-up. Somehow, the game always worked. We returned afternoon after afternoon for the next installment. Our imaginations knew no bounds.

And so grew my love of mysteries, of strong girl characters, and of series fiction. It only made sense that after college, my first job as an editorial assistant landed me at Grosset & Dunlap, publisher of Nancy Drew herself. I then moved onto Parachute Publishing, editing Goosebumps and The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley series among countless others. Under the rapid-fire pace involved in producing series fiction, I learned to plot. Above all, I gained an appreciation for an outline. In a mystery—be it an early reader mystery, such as Wallace and Grace Take the Case with two private eye owls in search of whoo-dun-it, or an adult mystery with professional spies—an outline is much-needed road map to fit all the pieces together, build the clues, and close up plot holes.

When creating my own characters and my own plots, I never conceive of them within the framework of a single book. I’ve always been a series fiction kind of girl. I like my books numbered. I like knowing the story never has to end. Maybe it’s because I can’t let go of characters who have grown to be friends. Or maybe I enjoy going into a story with a firm grasp of the rules and an understanding of the worlds, freeing myself to enjoy the journey.

Nancy Drew the Spy On the Prairie was a game I eventually abandoned for tennis lessons and after-school clubs. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, it served as a primer for my future as an editor and then author. In my yard, I was plotting series fiction long before I entered the world of publishing.

As my new early chapter book series publishes, I wonder if some day two kids will play at solving mysteries in their yard the way Wallace and Grace do in the Big Woods. It would be so easy for Laura to drop by, being that she lives in the woods (at least, she did in her early books). Harriet would most certainly approve of Wallace’s little notebook. And Nancy and George wouldn’t hesitate to join in and collect clues.

My gang’s all together . . . ready for the next story in the series.

Heather Alexander is the author the early-chapter book series, The Amazing Stardust Friends, and the middle-grade novel, Picture Perfect #1: Bending Over Backwards. The former editorial director of Parachute Press, Heather has edited over 100 children’s fiction series, including the best-selling Goosebumps and the early-chapter mystery series, The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley. Heather lives in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, with her husband and two daughters.