Marjorie Weinman Sharmat had two dreams as a child — to become a detective and to be a writer. By age eight she had accomplished both, after she and a friend put out their own spy newspaper, The Snooper’s Gazette. Most of its news came from eavesdropping on adults.
It was excellent training for her future career. Sharmat became one of the nation’s most prolific authors of children’s books, including the popular “Nate the Great” detective series, which has helped generations of children learn how to read — and how to sleuth.
Sharmat died at 90 on Tuesday in Munster, Indiana. Her son Andrew Sharmat said the cause was respiratory failure. She had moved to Indiana from Tucson, Arizona, to be closer to him, he said.
Sharmat turned out more than 130 books for children and young adults. They have regularly been Literary Guild selections and often chosen as a book of the year by the Library of Congress.
But she was most known for her “Nate the Great” series, the first of which appeared in 1972.
Nate is a boy detective who wears a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat, loves pancakes and always catches his culprit, usually with the help of his dog, Sludge. (The hat was added by illustrator Marc Simont, who drew the first 20 “Nate” books.)
Nate quickly emerged as something of a pop culture figure. His picture once adorned 28 million boxes of Cheerios, to promote children’s literacy, and he has cropped up as the answer in a New York Times crossword puzzle.
Some “Nate” books have been made into television movies; one, “Nate the Great Goes Undercover” (1974), won the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival Award. The New York Public Library named “Nate the Great Saves the King of Sweden” (1997) as one of its 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.
Sharmat was born Marjorie Weinman on Nov. 12, 1928, in Portland, Maine. She attended Westbrook Junior College, now Westbrook College, in Portland in the 1940s. She met Mitchell Sharmat while vacationing in Florida, and they married in 1957.
The idea for Nate came to her after she had children and began paying attention to children’s reading material.
“She picked up ‘Dick and Jane’ and said, ‘This is awful, it has no storyline,’” Andrew said in a phone interview. “She wanted to do something more interesting, but something a first- or second-grader could pick up.”
Sharmat had enjoyed watching detective shows on TV. “She was a big ‘Dragnet’ fan — ‘just the facts,’” he said. “She loved to watch Joe Friday and police shows, and the way they talked inspired her.”
Writing the “Nate” stories became a family affair. Her husband created a cousin for Nate named Olivia Sharp, also a detective, and the couple wrote a series of Olivia Sharp books. Sharmat’s sister, Rosalind Weinman, was co-author of “Nate the Great and the Pillowcase” (1993). Another son, Craig, collaborated with his mother on three “Nate” books, including “Nate the Great and the Musical Note” (1990). And Andrew helped her write another series, “Kids on the Bus,” in the early 1990s.
One of Sharmat’s earliest books, “Goodnight Andrew; Goodnight Craig” (1969), was about her sons.
In addition to Andrew, she is survived by her son Craig and two grand-children (one named Nate). Her husband died in 2011, her sister in 2006.