Dedicated to the legacy of Edward Stratemeyer, author & founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate

Banned Book Week

The last week in September is considered to be Banned Book Week.  In 2019 this is Sept. 22-28.

While you will see lists of many books that have been “challenged” or “censored” over the years, most of the time our juvenile series books are not listed. Yet, the librarians who wanted to impress fellow librarians, were active in removing these books from public library shelves and preventing young people from accessing them.

Often this was done on the complaint that the books were poorly written, improbable, or they didn’t have enough space and funds for other books.

We are told that we should not judge a book by its cover but what can be said of the notion of judging an entire genre based on a few examples?

Like anything else, there are good and bad and they should be evaluated on their individual merits and flaws rather than tossing them all out just because they happen to be issued in a series with stories about the same group of characters.

This problem goes back to the 1890s and is still a factor today in some circles. Edward Stratemeyer encountered this and pushed back where he could. More detail on this was part of one of my PCA presentations

Keeline.com/articles/PCA2005-StratemeyerVsBSA.pdf

In some ways, the library ban on series books did not reduce the demand but instead it caused more families to buy the books that the libraries would not stock.

I’ve said many times before that one of the reasons that I collect books is that I cannot rely on libraries getting or keeping books that interest me.


The warnings about literature for children were made by people like Anthony Comstock in his book Traps for the Young (1883).  Dime novels, nickel libraries, and story papers were just some of the popular media he warned about.

Anthony Comstock was a Restoration Era reformer. His 1883 book, Traps for the Young included a chapter on the dangers of “story papers” and other materials that might be seen by youth.

It was fairly common to find articles in newspapers about libraries who would not accept or removed books by some authors and in some series.  This example was from a Louisiana newspaper in 1912 and affected some of the popular writers of the Nineteenth Century — Horatio Alger, Jr., “Oliver Optic” (William T. Adams), and G.A. Henty.  The Elsie Dinsmore series and several Stratemeyer Syndicate series published by Cupples & Leon are singled out:

  • Revolutionary series by “George A. Warren” (Weldon J. Cobb).  These are best known by collectors and readers as the Musket Boys series.
  • College Sports series by “Lester Chadwick” (Howard R. Garis).
  • Jack Ranger series by “Clarence Young” (Howard R. Garis).
  • Boy Hunter series by “Capt. Ralph Bonehill” (Edward Stratemeyer).
  • Motor Girls series by “Margaret Penrose” (Lilian C. Garis*).
  • Dorothy Dale series by “Margaret Penrose” (Lilian C. Garis*).
[Note that a few writers worked on these series but Lilian Garis did the early ones from the era of this article.] 

Oliver Optic is barred in Washington library (14 Dec 1912)

Another reformer who wanted to warn of the dangers of series books was Franklin K. Mathiews, the self-appointed Chief Scout Librarian for the Boy Scouts of America.  He wrote articles and gave speeches to church, community and library groups.  Initially he singled out books that boys should not read but soon after focused on listing books that he thought boys (and girls) should read.

Franklin K. Mathiews was the Chief Scout Librarian for the Boy Scouts of America. He is best known for writing “Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains” for Outlook magazine in November 1914.

Edward Stratemeyer was obviously not pleased with efforts to prevent young people from buying and reading the books he personally wrote or those produced by his Stratemeyer Syndicate.  Initially though, Mathiews and Stratemeyer were not aware that their efforts were pointed at each other.  The popular modern reading of “Blowing Out the Boy’s Brains” is that passages in it referred to Edward Stratemeyer and his Stratemeyer Syndicate.  However, the books described are not Syndicate series.  Further, there are letters between them that don’t seem to recognize that Stratemeyer was head of a book packager of the type that Mathiews had heard about.

Stratemeyer tried to appeal directly to the public by sending in a letter to the New York Times.  It was not published but a carbon copy of the letter survives in the Stratemeyer Syndicate Records Collection at NYPL.

Books for Young People Issued in Series

An unpublished letter to the New York Times, dated 8 Nov 1915 about series books.

Ultimately, despite the criticisms and perhaps because of them, most of the Stratemeyer Syndicate series books sold fairly well.  If they had been more available in libraries, there’s a good chance that fewer copies would have been sold to children and parents of children.


In 1934, around the time of the large-scale profile of series book production in Fortune magazine called “For It Was Indeed He,” librarians renewed their efforts to discourage shelving popular series books.

Librarians fight "Thrill" Books

An article from Nov. 1934 that appeared in many newspapers warning about series books.

The librarians were informed by the Fortune article and a couple revealing articles by Edna Yost for Publishers’ Weekly from 1932.  The article above singled out Edward Stratemeyer as a source of many series books.

About once a decade library journals and handbooks included lists of series that should not be carried.  This list is from 1949:

1956 article banning series books

April 1956

An article from April 1956 listed books which libraries must not carry if they wanted to continue to receive state funding.  The list includes popular fiction authors, many of which were series books.  Stratemeyer Syndicate series are marked here with §.

  • Books by Horatio Alger, Jr.
  • Bobbsey Twins series §
  • Wizard of Oz series
  • Tarzan series
  • Five Little Peppers series
  • Hardy Boys series §
  • Little Colonel series
  • Don Winslow series
  •  Jack Armstrong series
  • Tom Slade series
  • Lone Ranger series
  • Frank Merriwell series
  • “Carolyn Keene” series — referring to Nancy Drew and Dana Girls series §

When articles listing bans were published, there were routinely reactions from adults who remembered reading the books and felt that they had a positive influence.  Often these reactions appeared on the editorial pages of the newspapers.


Dr. Dorothy Dodd

In 1959 the Florida State Librarian, Dr. Dorothy Dodd, started a state-wide campaign to ban many series books.  Articles about it and reactions appeared in newspapers across the United States.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and her sister who lived in Florida, Edna Camilla Squier, were aware of Dr. Dodd’s campaign but after conferring about it, they did not take any action on it.

One of the rationales given was that the children of the day wanted to read about modern topics like “missiles and atomic submarines.”

Bans on series books have extended into recent decades.

This library wouldn’t carry Nancy Drew but at least they were open-minded enough to “carry Playboy.

More details on banning books in the U.S. can be seen in Wikipedia.

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Keeline

James D. Keeline has been researching Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate since 1988. He has written many dozens of articles and conference presentations on these topics and has several books in progress, including a Series Book Encyclopedia, a full biography of Edward Stratemeyer, and Stratemeyer Syndicate Ghostwriters. He has also edited and published several Stratemeyer texts in illustrated and annotated editions under the 24 Palmer Street Press imprint at Lulu.com.

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