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  • Nursing Radicalism:Some Lessons from a Post-War Girls' Series
  • Julia Mickenberg (bio)

1. Introduction: A Difference of Opinion

On 16 September 1963, Golden Press editor Carolyn ("Carrie") Lynch sent a letter to Emma Gelders Sterne and Barbara Lindsay regarding their proposed outline for the tenth book in the Kathy Martin nursing series, which this mother–daughter team had been writing, as "Josephine James," since the series's inception five years earlier. Thus far, the books had seen Kathy through nursing school (A Cap for Kathy [1959], Junior Nurse [1960], and Senior Nurse [1960]); had taken her on various adventures from Alaska (Assignment in Alaska [1961]) to the South Pacific (Search for an Island [1963]); and had offered her the opportunity to fall in love, rise to new career challenges, and help solve various mysteries.

With their blend of romance, mystery, and career-related drama, their cover images of a perky, uniformed nurse (on a ship, roving the hospital carrying tea, or standing by an attractive doctor [see Figure 1]), or even their titles (which echo the Sue Barton and Cherry Ames series), the Kathy Martin books might seem indistinguishable from other girls' series published in the postwar period. However, these formulaic books were so well-formulated that they quickly became Golden Press's most popular fiction series.1 Still, Lynch was writing to clear up "a difference of opinion between us about the scope and province of these books."

Exactly what Sterne and Lindsay had proposed for the next book is not clear, but in their choice of a subject too "grim," they had evidently crossed some kind of line, suggesting material [End Page 491] "wholly outside the province of these simple, light books."2 Of interest is both the line itself—the formulas and conventions that made books of this genre recognizable and appealing to adolescent readers—and the continued pressing and stretching of that line's boundaries.

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Fig. 1.

Cover illustration for Senior Nurse: A Kathy Martin Story (no. 3 in the series), written by Josephine James and illustrated by Kenneth Rossi. The illustration shows Kathy graduating from nursing school, and also shows her to be attractive, professional-looking, and, perhaps, up to something, as suggested by her gaze and smile. Reproduced with permission of Random House.

The issue of material being "not suitable for this medium" had obviously come up before. "It was on these grounds that we vetoed the drug addiction in one of the earlier Kathys," Lynch noted in the same letter, "and that we gave a thumbs down reaction to handling mental illness in a Kathy book, and probably other [End Page 492] subjects I don't remember." Lynch's explanation of what readers expected, and were thus "entitled" to find, reads like a catalog of series novel conventions: "[T]hese books" should be "light reading—not overly-serious and not literary classics." They should be entertaining but also "wholesome," with "a little romance and a little mystery," she advised. While Lynch lauded the "values" in the Kathy books and the "depth of the characters," she made clear that various kinds of topics, activities, and behaviors were inappropriate, as were certain modes of address: "Neither does the reader expect to encounter sermons, lectures, propagandizing, doctrines, pleading for special causes, or political, social, or moral counseling. They simply don't expect these books to argue causes or try to convert, etc."3

If this catalog of conventions is revealing, that Sterne and Linsday needed a reminder about appropriate content after writing eight books in the series also tells us something about them. Both women were active members of the Communist party during the years they worked on the Kathy books. They were also experienced writers for children; in fact, by the late 1950s, Sterne (see Figure 2) had published dozens of children's books, including several Golden Books. They knew perfectly well what was and was not appropriate for "these books."4 However, as Barbara's daughter and Emma's granddaughter Faith Lindsay reflect, "they were always trying to push the envelope and then got pushed back." Sterne and Lindsay were successful because they were able to...


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pp. 491-520
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