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Just a Little Bestselling Series: An Introduction to the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s Honey Bunch Series
As of January 1, 2019, a year’s worth of copyrighted material has entered the public domain, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has generously located and digitized two of the first three Honey Bunch series—Honey Bunch #1 Just a Little Girl (1923) and Honey Bunch #3 Her First Days on the Farm (1923). This immensely popular girls’ series spanned forty years and multiple generations of children, marking it as one of the most well-known and well-read girls’ books of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. However, the final book was published in 1963, and since then, the series’ prominence has been all but forgotten, excluding perhaps its original readers who encountered it as children. The Honey Bunch series’ target audience was primarily little girls, and although scholarship regarding adolescent series’ fiction has begun to accumulate in recent years, there remains a paucity across the board in the study of series’ fiction in general and even more so in the study of series’ fiction aimed toward an audience of five to ten-year-olds. In creating a digital edition of the Honey Bunch series, the University of Illinois Library will doubtlessly inspire scholars in girls’ studies, literary studies, popular culture, and women’s and gender studies to conduct additional research and consider more thoroughly the Honey Bunch series and its sociohistorical impact. Moreover, the digital edition of these books might very well serve as a guide for other scholars working in the project of recovery at a time when an increasing number of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books will enter the public domain. Finally, it would be remiss if an article accompanying this online exhibit does not nod in some way toward the obvious sense of nostalgia these web editions may generate. Though as a university library the intent of this exhibit might first be to attract scholars and students, it is imperative to recognize and celebrate that this exhibit will also create a fresh space for original and new readers of the series. In doing so, one of the first steps toward a holistic reconciliation among libraries, readers, scholars, and students regarding the Stratemeyer Syndicate—a syndicate with a storied past of rebuke in the library circuit—will be taken. This brief essay will introduce the Honey Bunch series, its themes and historical context, so as to provide a background to those visiting this website who wish to learn more about the series before diving into the digitized editions.
Honey Bunch: Her Perfection
In her critical work, The Girl Sleuth, nationally renowned and bestselling author, Bobbie Ann Mason, writes that “Honey Bunch was [her] first friend in fiction.” Similarly, acclaimed children’s literature scholar Margaret Mackey writes in One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography that the Honey Bunch series is one of her “earliest recollections of reading independently outside of the Dick and Jane books.” Both authors promptly paint their experience with Honey Bunch as fraught, to say the least. Mason (perhaps aptly) dubs Honey Bunch “the perfect little Miss Priss” and suggests that the books “celebrate the protective pussy-nook nestling place, leading children backward toward the womb instead of onward toward adulthood.” Likewise, Mackey shares that “[e]ven at the age of six, I sneered at Honey Bunch’s naïveté and rolled my eyes at her saccharine nickname,” and Mackey further suggests that her pushback against the orthodoxy of the series may have provided her “first foray into literary criticism.” Yet both authors acknowledge that in spite of their internal misgivings about the books’ characterizations and plotting, the pull of the series during their childhoods remained unavoidable; they cite fluid, changing reactions to numerous episodes that spanned multiple books in the series. That is, the series—though frustrating—still sparked and retained their attention, and they both considered it to be formative in shaping their adult selves, even if those selves were formed partly in opposition to the ever-perfect Honey Bunch.
Indeed, it would seem impossible for any living child to rise to the level of effervescent perfection of Honey Bunch; nor is it likely, as Mason and Mackey suggest, that a child would even necessarily realistically aim to do so. Josephine Lawrence, who wrote under the series author pseudonym Helen Louise Thorndyke, writes in the first book of the series, Just a Little Girl, that the protagonist’s real name is Gertrude Marion Morton, but her father gives her the eponymous nickname Honey Bunch:
because it seemed to suit her so exactly. That kind of name would not have done at all for a cross little girl, or for one that liked to tease, or even for a little girl who meant to be good but often forgot. Honey Bunch was so sunny and so smiling and so sweet, every day, the name just fitted her.
Honey Bunch, from the first few pages of the original thirty-four-book series that spanned from 1923 to1955, is described as almost exhaustively perfect. She is sweet every day, she is happy every day, and she is well-behaved every day. The illustration by Harry Lane that was used for the uniform cover and design of later books and reprints captures the spirit of the series’ tone and message. In it, Honey Bunch grasps a bouquet of flowers, and her dress, while blowing in the wind, stays perfectly unwrinkled, its creases falling in just the right places, her skirt blowing upward but still maintaining an ideal modesty. Her socks contrast in what we can assume as readers is a stark white against a dark, portraiture background: their pristine cleanliness is unmuddied even by the patch of grass upon which she stands. Honey Bunch holds a lovely, smiling pose, while images of a childhood filled with domestic materialism surround her—a doll in layers of clothes, a bicycle, a sled, a teddy bear, a pair of skates, gardening tools, a perfectly set table, among other objects. Not only is Honey Bunch herself perfect, but her childhood and all its attendant objects and trappings seem similarly idyllic. Hers is a childhood made for storybooks and perhaps only found within them.
In one of the most telling parts of the first book in the series, Honey Bunch’s mother invites three older women from “an old ladies’ home to come to Thanksgiving dinner.” This scene appears after a full chapter of Thanksgiving preparation that concludes with Honey Bunch “help[ing] Mother fill the little candy and salted nut dishes and tast[ing] a candy and a nut or two. She tied an orange ribbon on Lady Clare [her cat]. And then, finally, dinner was ready.” Lawrence points out that the women the Mortons invite from the home:
were not exactly poor and they were not hungry; they were well taken care of in the home.
“But they are lonely, for they have no one of their own to love them,” [Mother] said. “No nice daddy, no little girl. I like them to come and be happy with us, and Daddy does, too.”
Emphasizing that the women invited for Thanksgiving are not in need financially is an interesting decision. After all, wouldn’t it be better if the Mortons invited guests who were deeply in need, rather than those who were “well taken care of?“ Wouldn’t it exemplify the charity and goodness of the family, if the Mortons were illustrated as generous to those who might not possess as much material wealth as they clearly do within the story? Any intentional reader of girls’ series reader cannot help but be reminded of a similar, earlier scene from Louisa May Alcott’s famous girls’ series book, Little Women (1868), in which Marmee requests that her daughters make a sacrifice on Christmas morning:
“Merry Christmas, little daughters! . . . I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire . . . My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?” They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour, and for a minute, no one spoke; only a minute, for Jo exclaimed impetuously—“I’m so glad you came before we began!”
This scenario, one in which the March sisters sacrifice their own breakfast for those in need, juxtaposes almost gauchely with the Mortons’ desire to share a holiday dinner in their comfortable household with others who are already as comfortable as themselves. As Mother tells Honey Bunch, it feels as if the generosity centers on what the Mortons “like” rather than on serving anyone else, the opposite of the moral imperative driving Alcott’s novel. Ultimately, there is no material cost to the Mortons when hosting dinner: they enjoy hosting guests, eating with them, and showing them the finery of their home. The March sisters must travel in the cold and give up both their food and their warm home on Christmas morning. A giving of self is neither required nor expected throughout the entirety of the Honey Bunch series.
The material, perfect-feeling bubble, though, is perhaps part of what makes Honey Bunch as a series unaccountably appealing. Like the Mortons who want to feel as if they are being charitable without fully being so, child readers of the Honey Bunch series know within its pages that they will encounter nothing but glossy perfection. No real trouble will come to Honey Bunch, no real poor and no real needy will be found within its pages, only the make-believe kind of both. Indeed, everyone in the series wants to share in its protagonist’s optimistic, happy outlook, and in the end, formulaic prose translates to comfortable surety. Honey Bunch as a girl role model might not represent a character or lifestyle that is realistically attainable, yet her story is nonetheless attractive because of the beautiful sheen of childhood bliss that it peddles.
Honey Bunch: Her Popularity
This feeling of chimerical comfort is exactly what Edward Stratemeyer sought to invoke in the series fiction of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which he started in 1905, and which is the most famous children’s-series-fiction publishing franchise in American history. From its inception until 1985, the Syndicate produced “about 1,400 volumes of juvenile series books.” The Syndicate was the first in America whose target audience was children and adolescents, and it specialized in creating literature that youth would enjoy reading and would return to time and time again. Its success in capturing the youthful imagination in America is yet unmatched.
Jane Tompkins argues in her foundational Sensational Designs that formulaic fiction proffers a truth about the culture that it comes out of, assessing that:
A novel’s impact on the culture at large depends not on its escape from the forumalic and derivative, but on its tapping into a storehouse of commonly held assumptions, reproducing what is already there in a typical and familiar form. The text that becomes exceptional in the sense of reaching an exceptionally large audience does not do so because of its departure from the ordinary and conventional, but through its embrace of what is most widely shared.
Tompkins, here, is writing about domestic novels like Little Women in the nineteenth century, yet her argument that a bestselling novel’s popularity can reveal the preoccupations of the citizenry of a particular time and place can easily be transferred to the study of the successful Honey Bunch series. Although nineteenth-century, middle-class readers might be expecting and even seeking thoughtful moral guidance of Alcott’s ilk, by the turn of the twentieth century, the religiosity of the previous generation had begun to fade. Moreover, readers in and of themselves had broadened in more practical ways. Stratemeyer wanted his young audience to be able to afford his books, and he constantly negotiated the rates for his novels with publishers. For Stratemeyer, cheapness and availability of merchandise were always his main goal, along with successfully accruing his own profits, of course. He chose Grosset & Dunlap as a publisher, for instance, because of “a low royalty rate, 2c per copy for the first 10,000 copies sold at 50c.” Children’s books were increasingly reaching beyond the middle class and making it to the hands of the working-class, consequently reflecting the tastes of a broad audience who wanted both entertainment and a satisfying predictability that all would turn out well in the end for their idyllic heroes and heroines.
Furthermore, when one considers the time-frame during which Honey Bunch was most popular, a desire to read about an optimistic, well-to-do girl with cousins to visit from and to all over the world—a girl who has plenty of toys to play with, plenty of love from a doting mother and father, and even plenty of cuddles from her well-fed cat—makes sense. The rise of the Honey Bunch series’ popularity coincides with the Great Depression, after all. Carolyn Carpan in Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths: Girls’ Series Books in America assesses that in particular “teen girls were often depicted in girls’ series books as being wealthier than many readers would have been during the Great Depression. Girls’ . . . series offered readers the fantasy of financial well-being and the freedom of independence that many teen girls simply didn’t have during the 1930s. These fantasies were exactly what the readers wanted—a way to escape the economic realities of everyday life.” Honey Bunch’s life is filled with material and immaterial riches, birthday presents abound when she turns five, and in general, she is described “as always busy and happy.” In a review marking children’s interest in literature from 1935 to 1939, A. M. Jordan writes that in grades four through six, “girls place[d] mystery stories, fairy tales and adventures at the top” of their reading lists. Nancy Drew, Little Women, and the Honey Bunch series were always identified as favorite reading by primary-school readers. Jordan quotes one of the participants in his research as stating, “Honey Bunch was sweet and good and never had to be scolded” when asked about why the girl preferred the series. It is impossible to imagine any child never being scolded, but it seems almost as if Honey Bunch fits this bill throughout the over 30 books in the eponymous series. She never intentionally does wrong, and even if she does err, she isn’t reprimanded for it. Her life is one filled with joy of every type.
For example, in Just a Little Girl, Honey Bunch paints her back steps rainbow colors without her family’s permission, and she takes paint materials from her house painters without asking them first. When Honey Bunch is inevitably caught by one of the painters, there is surprise but no admonition from the painter; nor is Honey Bunch afraid of getting in trouble for acting without forethought: “‘I don’t see that much harm is done,’ said the Ray painter, looking from the steps to the little girl and from the little girl back to the steps,” once he discovers what Honey Bunch has done. He never mentions worrying about his paint costs or the time it might take him to fix her mistake. Initially, he does seem to warn her that her mother might be angry that Honey Bunch has ruined her dress and that the little girl might need to worry about future criticism and punishment: “‘I don’t think that dress you have on will ever be the same, Sister,’” he tells her, with her responding “comfortably,” “‘I can keep it to paint in.’” There is no fear, then, that her mother might be upset with Honey Bunch who had “yellow paint . . . on her shoes” and “a great dash of green paint on the front of her pink gingham frock.” Rather, Honey Bunch feels that her mother will understand and affirm the motivations driving Honey Bunch's decision to paint; that is, even though she states that the painters probably wouldn’t let her do so, she assumes rightly that her mother would never assume wrongdoing on her part. Moreover, Honey Bunch seems certain that her gingham dress and shoes are easily discardable. She can simply get another set of clothes altogether and use the dress for “a painting dress” only. For her, money is no object, and she trusts instinctively that her parents always know she is good, because of course, she definitionally always is. Honey Bunch can be read and interpreted as a fantasy story of childhood, a way to escape both the economic realities of the time during which it was written and perhaps a means to escape class consciousness in the years before and after the Great Depression. In addition, it can also be read as an escape from the moral encumbrances of childhood, of a stage in life when one is inevitably at the will of guardians who dictate whether one is acting right or wrong at all times. For young readers, even though they may intuit its heroine’s attitudes and adventures as rationally unattainable, the Honey Bunch series’ allure remains, a sparkly example of a childhood imagined but never able to be realized.
Honey Bunch: Her Legacy
Of course, the series cannot be considered as part of the profitable and impractical childhood realm of the Stratemeyer Syndicate without a comparison to Nancy Drew, and rightly so. The Nancy Drew series began in 1930, seven years after the first Honey Bunch book, and it seems, upon study, as if that more well-known heroine can be regarded as a grown-up version of Honey Bunch herself. Like Honey Bunch, Nancy Drew is perfect and excels at all that she does in every moral and intellectual way. Nancy Drew scholar Michael Cornelius asserts that “[p]erhaps the one quality that truly defines the girl detective figure is her unsurpassability—her perfection. This is certainly true for Nancy Drew.” Ellen Steiber, who acted as ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew series in the 1990s, affirms that Nancy Drew is “the definition of wholesome. This is a girl who always does and says the right thing.” It is almost as if Steiber is channeling the young girl in the 1930s research study who affirms that Honey Bunch’s innate goodness is exactly what makes her character and the broader series appealing. As a result, it should come as no surprise that Mildred Wirt Benson—who is famous for initiating and writing the first Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock, and twenty-three other Nancy Drew novels— also wrote five books in the Honey Bunch series. This fact attests to the similarities of these two Stratemeyer Syndicate characters and perhaps even that they can be read as interchangeable stories making up one composite categorization of girls’ series fiction from primary school to adolescence. While contemporary readers might find Nancy’s ability to always know how to act rightly to be an admirable quality in an adolescent, this same characteristic in a younger child feels strangely infeasible. Teens may have learned right from wrong, but children have decidedly not. Honey Bunch is precocious, while Nancy Drew is courageous. Honey Bunch is aggravating; Nancy Drew, admirable. Honey Bunch is a know-it-all, but Nancy Drew actually knows it all.
Yet as if to gesture toward the timeless, always ideal teenager she arguably eventually develops into, Honey Bunch, at the end of Just a Little Girl, solves a mystery befitting her youthful world. Indeed, she has an epiphany worthy of a sleuth: she remembers the name of the man who tried to meet her father about an important legal matter at the beginning of the novel, but whose name became lost because her mother misplaced his important business card. Honey Bunch initially offers clues to her parents who, like her, cannot remember the man’s name, though they know that they feel they should remember it: “She remembered that his little girl was called ‘Roses’ instead of Lulu,” Lawrence writes, but this information is deemed unhelpful by both parents. Throughout the book, Honey Bunch traces patterns of logic and memory, examining how one idea can lead to another. When her cousin comes to visit from New York and tells her about subways, she remembers suddenly: “Mr. Subways was a man. He isn’t any old railroad under the ground. He came to see Daddy—and Daddy wasn’t home—he’d gone to Washington. So there!” With this revelation, Mrs. Morton “sat up very straight,” and her father “look[ed] pleased . . . I think Mr. Subways and I can probably save several thousand dollars,” he tells his family. Thus, like her adolescent counterpart, Honey Bunch saves the day at the end of the novel. Though this is a small, domestic affair (and Honey Bunch is only five), it stands to reason that as she grows up, her powers of deduction will grow stronger, as will her moral certitude. Like Nancy, Honey-Bunch travels widely and variously and experiences adventure after adventure—going “from the city” “to the farm” and even solving a “little mystery” and going on a “treasure hunt.” In 1957, her character even teams up with her friend Norman for twelve new adventures and a new focus of the series to include boy readers, a crossover reminiscent of Nancy Drew’s more famous pairing with Frank and Joe Hardy.
Honey Bunch’s integral place in the history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its child heroines is undeniable not only because of the attraction it exerts on youthful readers but also because of the ire it inspires from adults. As Bobbie Ann Mason and Margaret Mackey illustrated at the beginning of this essay, children seem drawn to the series, even if they may not be able to articulate why later on, whereas adults reading it and remembering the series easily find flaw after flaw in its nearly flawless heroine. Famously, in 1929, Mary Root, “a prominent library figure in America . . . compiled a list of ‘Books in series not circulated by standardized libraries’ . . . The publication of Root’s list marked the climax of a half-century long campaign on the part of librarians to suppress dime novels and series books. It was indisputably successful, since series books would stay out of libraries until the late sixties and early seventies.” Both the Honey Bunch and the Nancy Drew series experienced this type of censorship by librarians across the country as this and other lists circulated that questioned the worth of the books; after all, the series’ perfect heroines were thought to teach nothing of substance and liking them was even thought to exhibit a lack of mental acuity.
However, Honey Bunch’s allure for children during the first half of the twentieth century is part of America’s literary heritage, and beginning to understand why this series in particular was so popular sheds light on young girls’ reading practices. Trying to understand why girls read fiction, and the choices they make about what to read and how to respond to it, is one area to which literature scholars could attend more closely via a thoughtful scrutiny of the Honey Bunch series, and even the rest of the Stratemeyer Syndicate as a whole. Perhaps, in doing so, scholars, in a move akin to both Honey Bunch and Nancy Drew, will stumble upon one nascent mystery after another yet to be solved. Indeed, it is my hope that in looking through this exhibit about the Honey Bunch series, readers and scholars alike will be piqued to read, contemplate, and study both further and more deeply. Ironically and perhaps rightfully as aforementioned, it is now librarians leading the charge to guide additional, critical conversation about the Honey Bunch series. At the end of every series book, there is always a tease to the next. Just a Little Girl ends this way: “what happened to Honey Bunch in the great city of New York you’ll have to read in another book about her . . . It will take a whole book to tell you, so you may know Honey Bunch had an exciting time.” I conclude this introduction to the Honey Bunch series similarly: “what happened to Honey Bunch in the realm of scholarship and popular legacy you’ll have to read about in future essays, books, and media about her . . . It will require new and innovative directions of study, so you as readers and scholars may look forward to an exciting time.”
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- Bobbie Ann Mason, The Girl Sleuth: On the Trail of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 19. ↵
- Margaret Mackey, One Child Reading: My Auto-Bibliography (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2016), 151. ↵
- Mason, The Girl Sleuth, 19. ↵
- Ibid., 25. ↵
- Mackey, One Child Reading, 151. ↵
- Helen Louise Thorndyke, Honey Bunch: Just a Little Girl, (New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1923), 7. ↵
- Ibid., 134. ↵
- Ibid., 133. ↵
- Ibid., 134. ↵
- Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Penguin Classics, 1989), 14-15. ↵
- James D. Keeline, “Stratemeyer Syndicate,” Edward Stratemeyer & the Stratemeyer Syndicate, accessed December 11, 2018, http://stratemeyer.org/stratemeyer-syndicate/. ↵
- Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), xvi. ↵
- Keeline, “Stratemeyer Syndicate.” ↵
- Carolyn Carpan, Sisters, Schoolgirls, and Sleuths: Girls’ Series Books in America (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 50. ↵
- Thorndyke, Just a Little Girl, 85. ↵
- A. M. Jordan, “Children’s Interests in Reading: A Review of Research Articles from 1935 to 1939,” The High School Journal 23, no. 2 (February 1940): 323-30, https://www.jstor.org/stable/i40016021, 326. ↵
- Ibid., 329. ↵
- Thorndyke, Just a Little Girl, 122. ↵
- Ibid., 122. ↵
- Ibid., 121. ↵
- Ibid., 122. ↵
- Michael Cornelius, “Nancy Drew’s Shadow: Trixie Belden and a Case for Imperfection,” in Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture, ed. LuElla D’Amico (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016), 92. ↵
- Carolyn Keene, “Assuming the Role: Writing the New Nancy Drews,” in Rediscovering Nancy Drew, eds. Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995), 76; quoted in Cornelius, “Nancy Drew’s Shadow,” 92. ↵
- Thorndyke, Just a Little Girl, 38. ↵
- Ibid., 167. ↵
- Nancy Tillman Romalov, “Children’s Series Books and the Rhetoric of Guidance: A Historical Overview,” in Rediscovering Nancy Drew, eds. Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995), 119. ↵
- Thorndyke, Just a Little Girl, 182. ↵