“It’s Not Nancy Drew Out There": Writing Tough Topics for Teens

The author of Heroine on the harsh realities of her rural community and why she writes for young people.

Mindy McGinnis headshot

Photo by www.amyparrish.com

Rape. Murder. Suicide. Overdose. It might sound like the lead-in for a true crime show, but it’s a sampling of the traumas my students dealt with in the more than a decade that I worked in a high school library. I’m from a rural community in Ohio, graduating under 100 kids every year. The grass is green, the wheat is golden, and hometown football games are the place to be on a Friday night. While the setting may sound idyllic, our lives often aren’t.

Almost 25 percent of our students live below the poverty level. Lines at food banks are long, and often those standing in them lack other essentials as well—like a good winter coat. But class inequality and nature aren’t the only things that harm us. Sometimes we hurt one another, and often we hurt ourselves. Even though I worked in a school serving a very small community, staff and students experienced the traumas mentioned above—in some cases more than once.

Teen literature as we know it today did not exist when I was growing up, and there was a very large gap between what I read as a middle schooler before making the jump to adult titles. I often joke that I went from reading books about hiding a stray puppy in the basement so that allergic parents wouldn’t know it’s in the house to . . . Cujo.

There were a handful of authors available to me as a teen—Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Caroline B. Cooney, and Christopher Pike, to name a few—who did push the envelope as far as content was concerned, and I am eternally grateful to them. Even so, topics such as rape or addiction weren’t something many authors were willing to address or, when they did, were handled so carefully as to render the text vague and antiseptic.

When I wrote The Female of the Species as an adult—a rape-revenge, vigilante-justice story—I got in trouble . . . with my mother. She was upset that I would talk so openly in a book for teens about consensual sex, violence, rape, and drinking. I remember defending the book by telling her, “It’s not Nancy Drew out there anymore.”

Since the publication of The Female of the Species, I have received emails, tweets, and messages from multiple girls and women letting me know how much the story resonated with them. One woman in her 40’s said that if she had read a book like it when she was a teenager, she might have found the strength and courage to report her attacker rather than accept such behavior as the norm.

Heroine, my newest release that focuses on a female athlete and the opioid epidemic, has garnered much the same reaction. Early readers reached out, thanking me for writing about addiction in a way that empathized with the user, sharing how their loved one suffers and that the book helped them understand that struggle a little bit better.

If writing about difficult topics makes it more likely for people to feel comfortable talking about them, then I consider my work a success, even if I am not a household name. I have heard from multiple parents that Heroine helped them open up a conversation with their teens about prescription drug abuse, and I know that The Female of the Species is very often a mother-daughter read.

As a librarian I became good at finding the readership for a particular book, especially for my students who were dealing with tough topics. It’s a small town, and often I knew what their story was, without them having to tell it. I could pair a teen with a title, and felt the warmth of reward when they finished it and asked for another like it. It’s an unfortunate fact that a book like Heroine or Female of the Species has elements that will resonate with so many young people. As I explained to my mother—it’s not Nancy Drew out there anymore.The truth is it never was. We just didn’t talk about it.


Mindy McGinnis is an Edgar Award-winning novelist who writes across multiple genres, including postapocalyptic, historical, thriller, contemporary, mystery, and fantasy. While her settings may change, you can always count on Mindy’s books to deliver grit, truth, and an unflinching look at humanity and the world around us. You can visit her online at www.mindymcginnis.com.

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