Decked out in a pink trench coat and sunglasses and wielding a rhinestone-studded magnifying glass, Fancy Nancy makes her chapter book debut in typically posh style in Jane O’Connor’s Nancy Clancy, Super Sleuth. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, the paper-over-board mystery will be published by HarperCollins in April with an announced first printing of 150,000 copies. Speaking to Bookshelf from her office at Penguin Young Readers Group, where she is editor-at-large, O’Connor discussed Fancy Nancy’s success and new incarnation as a Nancy Drew wannabe.
Before talking about Fancy Nancy’s new incarnation, tell us how she was born.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother and great aunts used to visit on Sunday afternoons, and I’d always greet them attired in my pink tutu that had a satin top and tulle with tiny pink rosebuds on it. I often wore it, believe it or not, with a red cape and a pair of my mother’s high heels. I’d also entertain our visitors—often with a dance. And the other part of my inspiration for Fancy Nancy was my friend Susan’s mother. My mother was very pretty in an understated, chic way, but I thought she was too plain. Susan’s mother wore pink iridescent lipstick and blue eye shadow and lots of jewelry. I was always asking my mother to look more like Susan’s mother.
So there’s a bit of you in Nancy?
I wasn’t terribly girly-girlish when I was little, in the sense that I wasn’t into dolls. They bored me. I preferred board games or roller skating in the park or riding my bike. Though I did think that anything with sequins on it was just the bee’s knees, so I guess I really was my own inspiration! It’s funny, when I go to bookstores or schools, kids ask me where I get my ideas, and often ask me if I have a daughter or a granddaughter, and I say, "No, I don’t have a daughter, I have two sons—and no grandchildren yet." And then I suggest to them that maybe I was a bit like Fancy Nancy myself.
Isn’t it kind of ironic that the mother of two sons has created a character who is so all-girl?
Well, I think of it as sort of payback. Now I get to spend time with all these totally overdressed little girls with their evening gloves and lopsided tiaras. It’s like dessert, and it’s so fun. There are always a couple of them who I’d like to kidnap and take home with me.
What do you think is it about Fancy Nancy that has attracted so many young fans—and makes them want to emulate her?
I think that for girls, dressing up and being sparkly is like playing superhero for little boys, but maybe I’m being too analytical. Little girls, like boys, like to be noticed. They want to feel like a big shot, since you’re not very powerful when you’re young. Dressing up makes them feel like they’re big and important—and very glamorous of course.
Clearly Nancy has also endeared herself to book-buying parents.
It’s funny. When I meet parents, mothers will often laugh and say, "Look at me now, in jeans and a t-shirt, but I was like Fancy Nancy when I was a little girl." And I didn’t know at first that parents and teachers would really appreciate Nancy’s vocabulary and the way she uses five-dollar words. I just saw it as another fun and fancy aspect of Nancy, but parents say they love to hear their daughters copy Nancy and say big words, like 'astounding.' That seems to have really struck a chord with parents.
Why did you decide to have Nancy make the transition from picture books to chapter books?
For a long time, I felt Nancy was strictly a picture book character, since a lot of the appeal in the picture books are the visual transformations—like when she rigs up her plain bedroom to be fancy. Saying she did that in words wouldn’t be nearly as funny as flipping the page and actually seeing how she used things like a sheet and a broom to turn her ordinary Ikea bed into a canopy bed. Robin [Preiss Glasser] often shows things in her pictures in such a funny way that we end up taking parts out of the text. Fancy Nancy was the first picture book I wrote, and I really tried to think visually. But the first book I ever wrote was a chapter book, Yours Till Niagara Falls, Abby, and writing chapter books is more natural to me.
Why is that?
I’m just more comfortable writing for that audience. For one thing, you can plumb the character more than you can in a picture book or an easy reader. Characters who are eight or nine are really pretty complex and understand so much. It’s not that different from writing for an adult audience, though of course the plot is simpler in chapter books and there are many fewer characters. And somehow I feel that I’m an immature nine-year-old at heart, and so that’s where I’m most comfortable writing.
So having Nancy grow into a chapter book character was a logical progression for you as a writer?
Well, I’ve written 17 or 18 Fancy Nancy I Can Read Books, which take place in school, so Nancy was already seeming older to me. I kept getting ideas that were way too complicated for easy-to-reads, so I thought about jumping it one step older. And I’d been getting a lot of letters from girls in the third and fourth grades, asking me if I’d thought about writing chapter books about Nancy. So I discussed the idea with my editor, Margaret Anastos, and decided to try novelettes—a fancy word for chapter books!
In her first starring role in a chapter book, why make Nancy an aspiring detective?
I first thought about using the name Nancy Clancy rather than Fancy Nancy, since it sounds older. And then I thought about Nancy Drew. I adored those mysteries as a kid. My mother had a friend whose daughter was 13 when I was seven or eight, and she had the entire collection of Nancy Drew mysteries. Once a week, I got to go to her apartment and into her really cool bedroom and borrow a Nancy Drew book, which I brought back to exchange for another the following week. I was hooked.
And what inspired the plot of Nancy Clancy Super Sleuth?
It’s actually based on a story from my own family. In the book, a blue marble that belongs to Nancy’s teacher—and had belonged to his grandfather—is stolen from her classroom. Nancy figures out that her sister JoJo has stolen—or “borrowed”—it. When my own sister and I were young, our great-uncle had a bowl of glass marbles, and my sister once asked him if she could have the blue one, and he said, 'Oh no, you don’t want that old thing." But she really did—and she took it. She was then wracked with guilt and told my mother, and she had to confess and return it. So that was the crime I based the story on. My sister, Jill Abramson, did reform. She’s executive editor of the New York Times, so she turned out all right!
So what’s next for you—and Nancy Clancy?
Well, my sister Jill and I have written a picture book together—a first for us, working together on anything. It’s called Ready or Not, Here Comes Scout, which is about her desperate-to-be-loved Golden Retriever. Viking will publish it next fall. I’m also feverishly working on my second, as yet untitled, adult mystery, a follow-up to Dangerous Admissions: Secrets of a Closet Sleuth, for Avon, which is still untitled. And I’m about to do some touring for the new picture book, Fancy Nancy and the Mermaid Ballet. I usually just show up in a feather boa, but for her appearances, Robin will look like a vision out of Swan Lake. Talk about fancy! She has a white gown made of feathers, pink sequin heels and a capelet. Talk about fancy! For events promoting Nancy Clancy, Super Sleuth, I ordered a hot pink trench coat online, like the one Nancy wears on the cover of the book, and I plan to wear it to bookstore events. And I just may get out my glue gun to put rhinestones on a magnifying glass.
As for Nancy Clancy, I’ve written a second chapter book, Nancy Clancy, Secret Admirer, which will be published next January. It was very fun to write. Nancy and her best friend Bree play matchmakers between Nancy’s guitar teacher and Bree’s babysitter. This one is not a mystery—it’s more as though they are creating a mystery rather than solving one.
Are there more Nancy Clancy “novelettes” to follow?
I am to write four books in the series. And if they’re popular, I guess I’ll write more. If they aren’t, I won’t.
Since the 56 Fancy Nancy books that HarperCollins has published in various formats have sold more than 18 million copies in the U.S. alone, the popularity of the new series just might be a safe bet.
Well, I guess I’ve had some good luck. But really, who would have thunk?
Nancy Clancy, Super Sleuth by Jane O’Connor, illus. by Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins, $9.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-06-208293-0