The Glitter Gene
With Fancy Nancy, Jane Abramson O’Connor ’69 creates a fun and fabulous world
by Christina Barber-Just
Lots of little girls are born with what children’s book author Jane Abramson O’Connor ’69 playfully calls the “glitter gene,” a love of all things glamorous. For them there is Fancy Nancy, the precocious heroine of O’Connor’s blockbuster series of the same name that has enchanted girls around the world for nearly a decade.
And it all began with a memorable name. “One night I was cooking dinner for my husband and our sons, and all of a sudden the name flew in my head,” O’Connor recalls. “I liked it because it rhymed, and after dinner that night I wrote the beginning as well as the end of the first book.”
Published in 2005, that book, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser and simply titled Fancy Nancy, spent 99 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, spawning a series of 70 titles that to date have sold nearly 23 million copies worldwide.
The success has taken O’Connor by surprise. “I’ve been writing books for kids since 1980, and they’ve done well,” she says, “but nothing had ever blown out the way the first Fancy Nancy book did.”
The series’ appeal lies in the title character’s unapologetic love of dressing up, looking pretty and adorning her life with all things fabulous, from speaking French to wearing feather boas and big hats and hosting tea parties. For Fancy Nancy, glamour is girl power. As book critic Emily Jenkins noted in The New York Times, “The message here is welcome—fanciness (unlike physical beauty) is available to anyone with a can-do spirit.”
O’Connor herself remembers the joy of dressing up in colorful clothes and jewelry. “My grandma and my great-aunts used to come to visit on Sunday afternoons,” she recalls, “and I would greet them at the door dressed in a pink tutu that had satin rosebuds on it and a red cape. . . . I thought I looked sensational.”
Along with her readers, the character of Nancy has gotten older, albeit more slowly. The kindergartener of the first book eventually graduated to the first grade and then the third grade. These days, Nancy is known as Nancy Clancy, solving mysteries in the vein of another famous Nancy—Nancy Drew. “[She] is not nearly so over-the-top outrageous because she’s older, more self-aware,” O’Connor says.
Fancy Nancy is far from O’Connor’s only project. In addition to writing, she is vice president and editor at large for Penguin Young Readers, the children’s division of Penguin Random House. “I always wrote on the side, but publishing is what I consider my real career,” she says.
Over the years, O’Connor has edited some of the most enduring names in children’s literature: Richard Scarry, Laurent de Brunhoff (Babar) and Joanna Cole (The Magic School Bus), among others. At Penguin, she specializes in mass-market books and series, such as the Who Was? biography series for kids, which she started more than 10 years ago; O’Connor wrote many of the 70-plus titles under the pseudonym Roberta Edwards, after sons Robert and Edward. Her other projects include a picture book, Ready or Not, Here Comes Scout, co-authored with her sister, Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times; and two adult novels, Dangerous Admissions and Almost True Confessions, featuring a mystery-solving copy editor.
The staying power of Fancy Nancy has been another surprise for O’Connor. “The editor gave me a two-book contract, and I thought, ‘How am I ever going to write a second story about this character?’” she says. “And here I am, 10 years later, still writing about her. I’ve been so fortunate.”
This story appears in the Spring ’14 SAQ