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Nancy Drew and the case of a secret identity

This time, it was quite serious – how to appeal to boys? A quick-thinking mother comes to the rescue.

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It was Nancy or nothing.

"Will you read me a story?" my 7-year-old asked. He and I were book-starved in Johannesburg, South Africa, an 11-hour drive from Sam's bedroom bookshelf in Zimbabwe.

For reasons that will become clear later on, I had no time to go shopping for books, though bookshops galore beckoned in Johannesburg's glitzy malls. Neither did I have the energy to concoct a story, as I'd done so many times before.

I sneaked into Sam's cousin Alex's bedroom, hoping to raid her bookshelf. Alex – short for Alexandra – is 9. Her bedroom is a little girl's dream of a lair: beribboned quilt covers, embroidered cushions, and giant hearts against a sky-blue wall.

I ran my finger along the spines on her shelf. My heart sank.

"There's an Owl in the Shower," by Jean Craighead George. Nice story, but Sam and I had already read it. "Fairy Stories, Collected." Sam would stop me after the first sentence. British author Lauren Child's "Clarice Bean, That's Me." There was no way Sam would fall for sassy Clarice, with her barely-disguised contempt for big brothers.

I spied a chunk of Ladybird reference books. My hopes rose, only to be dashed a second later. "No," Sam said firmly. "We read those at school."

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