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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Creating Sammy Keyes
Sammy Keyes’ creator, Wendelin Van Draanen, remembers how, as a child, she was “a rule follower.” So it’s ironic that her much-loved sleuth, the star of 18 books newly republished in redesigned paperback editions, is a middle-grader with a big mouth, infinite curiosity, and plenty of attitude.
But it’s not just Sammy’s brazenness that defines the series; it’s also her heart, along with her willingness to confront serious issues. From the start, Sammy has it rough. Her mother, off to Hollywood to find fame and fortune, dumps Sammy with her grandmother. The seventh-grader is stuck in a senior-living building, where she has to hide her existence and live out of one drawer.
Though the books’ mysteries revolve around missing pups and purloined paintings, at the same time, other stories are being told: Sammy deals with drugs, poverty, aging, and family strife. It’s these important themes that linger, and that’s just the way Van Draanen planned it. “To me, those issues were the most important thread of each of the books.” She adds, “I love mysteries, but I didn’t want this to be just about a clever girl who solves them. Through Sammy’s voice, I was able to introduce ideas that kids can think about.”
A former schoolteacher, Van Draanen says that part of the reason she started writing was to help young people navigate the pitfalls that often come with middle school. During her teaching years, she found that “if you can make it through middle school, you will be okay. This is a pivotal time.” Part of the series’ purpose, she notes, “was to show a girl who, despite many setbacks, was able to stay on her path, have an influence on her community and friends, and stand up for what she thinks is right.”
But Sammy Keyes almost didn’t see the light of day. The first book in the series, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief (1998), was roundly rejected by publishers. Van Draanen wrote the second book anyway. “I liked the girl,” she remembers, “and kept writing.” She finished a third and fourth book before finally landing a contract from Knopf for the full quartet. Seeing all the books in their new packaging was quite an emotional experience for the author.
“I’m so glad to see them together,” she says, with a bit of a catch in her voice, “and that I got to the end of the story. The first book came out 20 years ago. I grew with this girl; she became part of my family and definitely part of my heart. The whole goal was to get to the eighteenth book [Sammy Keyes and the Kiss Goodbye, 2014], and I wanted desperately to finish that last book and the last sentence, which I had known for five previous books. There was the anticipation of getting to an end that I hoped would satisfy the readers who had followed me on this journey. I bawled my eyes out, and it was a very emotional event for me.”
Before the books could be repackaged, Van Draanen had to do a little tinkering. In “Sammy world,” as the author calls it, each book covers another month or so in the young sleuth’s life. But in the 20 years that passed in the writing, the world, especially technology, kept changing. So Van Draanen did some updating for the paperbacks. Telephone booths became “ancient,” and flip-phones were banished. It was a big job, but the hardest part was resisting every author’s predilection to actually revise. She had to tell herself, “Your goal here is to update, not make yourself a better writer.”
When talking about Sammy Keyes, the term that reoccurs is stand-up. Although there have always been strong female characters in books for young people, it wasn’t so typical for middle-grade fiction 20 years ago to feature a girl who punched out an adversary, stood up to adults, or talked back to police officers. Van Draanen sees Sammy as a voice for girls’ inner strength and the possibilities for growth. “I knew right from the start what kind of character she was going to be. Readers like her because she’s flawed. You don’t have to be perfect to take a forward step in life. Then you correct your mistakes.”
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