THE SECRET OF SUCCESS

The Baltimore Sun

Washington-- --The Mystery of the Time-Traveling Sleuth.

Attractive, golden-tressed teenage actress Emma Roberts and her stalwart sidekick, first lady Laura Bush, were hot on the trail.

They were seeking to uncover clues that explain the continuing appeal of the fictional teenage sleuth Nancy Drew.

After all, the first book in the series was published in 1930 under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, though about a dozen authors contributed manuscripts. Dozens of titles have been published, and hundreds of millions of copies have been sold worldwide, though a spokesman for Simon & Schuster couldn't provide specific figures. That's a staggering sum, considering that the intrepid girl detective has been solving mysteries that baffle local law enforcement authorities for more than 75 years.

The scene: Washington Middle School for Girls, 1901 Mississippi Ave. S.E., a Catholic school in a struggling urban neighborhood of the District of Columbia that serves at-risk preteens.

The witnesses: Sixty giggling schoolgirls, neat in their uniforms of gray-and-blue plaid skirts and navy polo shirts.

The book-cover story: Sixteen-year-old Emma, an up-and-coming actress, stars in the new Warner Bros. film Nancy Drew, which opens nationwide June 15. Bush, a former librarian and schoolteacher, strives to promote literacy.

Chapter 1: The Surprising Schoolhouse

Emma left Nancy's trademark sky-blue convertible on the Warner Bros. lot, where it figures prominently in the film. Instead, she pulled up to the door of the middle school in a black SUV. She wore a pair of black jeans, a white, ruffled shirt and a black Chanel jacket. She carried matching accessories.

Bush wore a gray, striped pantsuit, a pale blue blouse and a warm smile.

The two gumshoes didn't waste any time. Bush opened a copy of the first book in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, and read several pages out loud, alternating with Emma.

"Nancy Drew was a favorite of mine when I was your age," the first lady told the students. "That was a long, long time ago. There are 57 titles in the series. If you like reading about a girl detective, go to the library and check one out. If you read really, really fast, maybe you can read all of them."

Unlike both the older and younger girls she knew, Emma never read Nancy Drew until she was cast in the role. But now she is enjoying delving into the adventures of the fearless teen, even though it meant dying her long, blond hair red. (Nancy is described in some books as "titian-haired.")

"I loved playing Nancy Drew," Emma said. The books take Nancy's world entirely seriously; the movie, however, has its tongue in its cheek.

It draws humor from juxtaposing the conventions of mid-century, Midwest America with the realities of life in 2007 Los Angeles, where the story is set. Though Nancy initially is teased by her fellow students at Hollywood High School for wearing 1950s-era fashions, she ultimately starts a trend that a style maven dubs "the new sincerity."

And it may be precisely that sincerity that appeals today to urban schoolgirls.

Oshun Brown, 13, and Nia Hutchinson, 11, told the gathering that they're avid Nancy Drew fans. In most books, Nancy is aided in her sleuthing by her two best friends: Bess (who is boy-crazy and likes to eat) and the tomboyish girl George, who is athletic but socially inept.

Oshun, a seventh-grader, sees a bit of all three characters in herself.

"I'm like Nancy, because when I see a problem, I don't stop until it's fixed," she said. "But I can be crazy like George. And, like Bess, I don't like getting into danger."

For Nia, in the sixth grade, much of the appeal of the books is the bond among the three characters.

"It reminds me of me and my friends," she said. "They're always helping me, and I help them."

Bush and Emma looked at each other. If only they could talk with the students for a few moments longer, answer a few more questions. But it was not to be.

"It's time to go!" a press secretary exclaimed. Emma and Bush had to leave - just as they were on the verge of cracking the case!

Chapter 2: A Valuable Discovery

The two sleuths decided to split up. Bush went on to handle other first lady duties.

Emma went to the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington to take a power nap and talk with journalists. She changed into black jeans, a black sweater and a gray T-shirt, and carried matching accessories.

Like Nancy, Emma has her own tight group of friends, named Christina, Skye and Bella. She has her own version of Ned Nickerson, Nancy's "special friend," as the books put it.

"He's not an actor, just a normal kid," she said. "But he's really cute."

The daughter of actor Eric Roberts, Emma resembles her famous Aunt Julia. The likeness is there in the generous mouth, the immense hazel eyes. And it's there before the camera, in a deft - and surprising - comic touch.

Emma grew up hanging around movie sets and at age 10 appeared in Blow, playing the daughter of Penelope Cruz and Johnny Depp.

Teens nationwide know Emma from her portrayal of Addie Singer in the Nickelodeon comedy series Unfabulous to the children's film, Aquamarine. Warner Bros. officials are hoping that Nancy Drew will draw both teenage girls and their baby boomer and Generation X mothers, who grew up reading the series.

Though Emma hadn't read any of the Nancy Drew books before she was cast in the film, she jumped at the chance to play the intrepid girl detective.

"I think there's something very appealing about Nancy," Emma said. "In movies or books, you don't often see a genuinely nice person who wants to help other people. She does, and that's refreshing."

In the books, Nancy is often too busy solving mysteries to take time for romance. Emma has a similar problem in front of the cameras. She sometimes has trouble keeping a straight face when she has to get starry-eyed for the cameras. She either starts to giggle or gets the hiccups. She can't help herself.

"I get the hiccups three times a day," she said mournfully. "I've tried everything. Nothing helps. And sometimes, I get a laughing fit, and I can't stop."

In the film, Nancy has to face down a pair of mean teen queens. Emma has had her own experience being snubbed and thinks the character might be able to teach her some coping mechanisms.

"I had a hard time keeping a nice, sweet tone in the scenes when Nancy gets provoked," she said. "I've run into girls who aren't always very nice. Nancy stays calm and collected. I don't."

Perhaps, after all, that is the secret of Nancy Drew. The character isn't realistic. She isn't meant to be. Instead, she's the kind of person teenage girls want to emulate: resilient and nurturing, fearless and compassionate.

Or, as Emma put it, "Everyone wants to be like Nancy Drew."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Emma Roberts

Age:

16

Home:

Los Angeles

Education:

Home-schooled, in the 10th grade

Job:

Actress

Recent role:

The title character in Nancy Drew

Career:

Played Addie Singer in TV's Unfabulous; had major roles in the films Blow and Aquamarine

Awards:

2005 Teen Choice Award for Breakout TV Performance (Unfabulous) and 2007 Young Artist Award for Best Supporting Actress (Aquamarine)

Plans:

Hopes to attend college, possibly Georgetown University, to study fashion or photography. Currently filming Wild Child.

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