Reviews 2016

Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Ghostwriter and Journalist

Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Ghostwriter and Journalist. Julie K. Rubini. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015. 136 pages. $28.95 (hardback).

Missing Millie Benson is published within Ohio University Press’s series Biographies for Young Readers. This series is intended for readers aged eight and upwards and focuses on the "life stories of exceptional individuals—especially those who may have been overlooked in mainstream biographies—written in a fresh narrative style" (Ohioswallow). All three of the current biographies in the series are about remarkable women. Julie K. Rubini’s biography of Millie Benson is the second in the series and also functions as an introduction to literary criticism for children as it introduces the world of authorship and publication, as well the structure of plot formation, in an easily digested manner. Mille Benson was one of the most prolific ghostwriters for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. She is best known for her work as "Carolyn Keene" although she also wrote under a number of other pseudonyms and her own name.

Julie Rubini pays homage to the importance of the Nancy Drew series in her own reading history in the preface where she describes the excitement she felt each time she was able to borrow a Nancy Drew story from the library. Rubini includes other elements from her own life-story that connect her to Millie Benson. Following the death of their daughter Claire, Rubini and her husband founded a children’s literature day – known as Claire’s Day – to commemorate the short life of their avid reader. She invited Benson to attend, but sadly received only a voice message saying she could not attend. Ten days later, Millie Benson died. The preface thus introduces a number of aspects of which are picked up in the biography: a fascination with detective stories, childhood reading, and bereavement. By positioning herself as a person with a personal relationship to Benson, Rubini also presents herself to the young reader as having some form special insider knowledge.

The biography itself makes use of the detective genre. Even the numbering of the chapters as "the first clue" and so on helps the intended novice reader to detect features of genre and learn about the author and journalist, Millie Benson. Rubini also helps her readers to understand the basics of source criticism by using this technique, which may sound cloying but is actually delightfully refreshing. For instance, Rubini frequently uses photographs as the basis for musings on what Benson might have been thinking. By mimicking Nancy Drew’s way of reflecting on her cases and evidence, Rubini helps young readers to understand how life-writing blends factual knowledge with surmised or even blatantly guessed information. She also uses a simple symbol – the shoes Benson wears in the various photographs Rubini has obtained – to weave the ghostwriter’s life-story together.

Since Rubini is writing a literary life, she takes the opportunity to introduce children to relatively complex literary terms and concepts such as writing syndicates, copyright laws, and ghostwriting. She also explains terms like the lead, how plots are constructed and, since Benson was also a scholar, a journalist and an aviator, to a wide range of other aspects of adult life that rarely find their way into books intended for children. At the end of the biography, there are several helpful appendices, including a glossary of the key terms that have been presented in bold face in the earlier text. From "alma mater" to "writing credits," and including "Gallup Polls," "penchants," and "ratified," this list delighted me with its obvious respect for children’s capacity to understand complex matters.

I confess that before reading this book, my knowledge of Millie Benson’s life was minimal. It certainly makes for good reading. Born in 1905, Benson was an unusually independent woman for her era. She studied at the University of Iowa and established herself as a journalist during her student years. By the time she was 21, she had a Master’s degree in journalism and had published her first children’s novel with the Stratemeyer collective. She met Edward Stratemeyer personally, and the two worked well together, although relations with Harriet and Edna Stratemeyer, who took over the syndicate after its founder’s death were less positive. In addition to her work as a journalist and author, she was also a pilot. Benson’s private life was certainly worth telling. She married twice and both marriages ended in widowhood. Her complex relationship with her daughter is summarized as "challenging" (68), but other adult relationships and struggles are not dismissed briefly. Instead, Rubini takes her readers into discussions of the tensions that arise between different interests, and cites segments from letters, photographs from family albums, and other ephemera to show how she has created her understanding of these people and their lives. Each chapter ends with a "Did you know?" section that takes the reader off at a tangent to introduce information about one of the points mentioned in the chapter. These vary from a miniature biography of Amelia Earheart to an advertisement for the biography in the same series, to the Brontë sisters’ use of pseudonyms.

In sum, this is a delightfully quirky read. It is not the kind of book the IRSCL normally reviews, but when I was sent it (in error), I starting browsing it to discover what kind of a book it was, and noticed 45 minutes later I had read most of the book. For a scholar of children’s literature, the timelines and complete publication lists would be helpful if one were working on the Stratemeyer syndicate. For a scholar’s children, the book has the potential to develop a new generation of literary scholars.

Lydia Kokkola
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden

Works Cited

Ohioswallow. "Biographies for Young Readers." Ohio University Press. Web.