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New Times / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 3rd, 2014, in the New Times - Volume 29, Issue 6 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [] - Volume 29, Issue 6

Sammy Keyes and the Grateful Author: The long-running series set on the Central Coast comes to an end


Pictured are covers from Sammy Keyes and Hotel Thief from (left to right, starting from top left) Denmark, Holland, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

It starts with a wave.

The Sammy Keyes book series opens with a girl assuring the reader she wasn’t trying to get in trouble. This about-to-be-junior-higher is merely bored on account of being trapped in the seniors-only apartment where she’s illegally living with her grandma while her mother tries to succeed in Hollywood. Due to complications triggered by a particularly nosy neighbor, our heroine is frequently stuck indoors lest someone discover the unusual housing arrangement and get everyone involved into trouble. So, armed with little more than a pair of binoculars and too much time, she scans the hotel across the street and happens to spot a burglary in progress. The burglar, in turn, spots her watching him.

“Then I did something really, really stupid,” Sammy Keyes admits.

She’s startled. So she waves.

• • •

If we wanted to get all science-y about it, we could ponder the nature of waves. A physics professor might explain that a wave is a disturbance that travels through space. In fluid dynamics, a wave is a ripple along the plane where two different substances meet. To see the force in action, drop a pebble into a pond and follow the circles that radiate outward where the water touches the air.

A “hello-there” wave is something different—but not altogether different. What is a friendly gesture of the hand but a vibration in otherwise mundane space, an action that emphasizes the meeting of two different personalities? Who knows what ripples we might start rolling with a casual flick of our fingers? Anything could happen if we answer T.S. Elliot in the affirmative: Yes, I do dare disturb the universe!

Sammy Keyes’ unthinking gesture on page 6 of Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief set quite a bit in motion. Not only did it kick off a mystery subsequently solved by a girl many reviewers have dubbed a modern-day Nancy Drew, it led to 17 more titles published regularly by Random House and Knopf since 1998.

In late August, a two-man crew traveled from Washington to Santa Maria to film author Wendelin Van Draanen in front of locations that inspired the setting for her Sammy Keyes series—including this high rise, the basis for the senor building where Sammy illegally lives with her grandma. Van Draanen’s husband and fellow author Mark Parsons helped by holding with some of the shots by holding equipment.

The final book in the series, Sammy Keyes and the Kiss Goodbye, hits bookstores on Sept. 9, capping a sizeable shelf’s worth of stories that take the main characters through the trials and triumphs of seventh and eighth grade. There are mysteries, yes, involving thefts and drugs and gangs and attempted murders and corpses in and around Sammy’s hometown of Santa Martina—a loosely fictionalized Santa Maria.

But the books are also explorations of modern life in all its messy complexity. Sammy’s family is about as non-traditional as they come, given that her absentee mother is a hopeful actress; her father’s identity is a secret, even from her; and her single grandmother acts as her harried guardian but has to pretend she merely has a granddaughter who visits a lot.

Life at William Rose Junior High is no less convoluted, given that a snotty fellow classmate decides to make Sammy her enemy on Day One—and that Sammy ultimately falls for this arch-nemesis’ brother. Lessons in dealing with conflict, peer pressure, and honesty abound.

Even the supporting characters deal with financial stresses, troubled home situations, and, well, life.

• • •

Sammy’s first wave caught more than the attention of a dangerous burglar, though serious further notice took some time. Author Wendelin Van Draanen had written four books about Sammy Keyes before she found them a home at a major publishing house. While she wrote, she submitted manuscript after manuscript, trying to find an interested editor. The rejection slips rolled in for 10 years.

“It wasn’t until I think that I was well into the fourth book that I realized I was following Sammy through junior high school,” Van Draanen said. “And of course, at the fourth book, I didn’t have a contract. … I was just following this girl because I liked her so much.”

Van Draanen eventually found success with How I Survived Being a Girl, a standalone novel about a sixth-grader named Carolyn who enjoys getting dirty and doesn’t trust anyone who wears Mary Janes. Nancy Siscoe, then an editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, received a query letter, was intrigued, and asked for the manuscript.

Wendelin Van Draanen and Mark Parsons drove a van across the lower half of the country earlier this year, stopping at independent bookstores and speaking at events along the way. That route is marked in green on this map. The couple is now set to embark on a northern section of the tour, with stops marked in orange.

“I really distinctly remember reading it on Amtrak,” Siscoe said. “I read a lot on the train.”

She fondly recalls laughing hysterically at the book, noting that she fell in love with the character. As How I Survived Being a Girl went to print, Siscoe and Van Draanen discussed what could come next, and both admitted a fondness for mystery series.

“We connected on the idea of that right away,” Siscoe said. “Then she sent the first Sammy Keyes, and I was totally blown away by the voice. It was exactly what I was looking for.”

She added: “I think Wendelin and I had both read Nancy Drew and a million other kid mysteries, and we wanted one who wasn’t so well placed … who had her own demons to deal with.”

Around this time, Siscoe was also moving from HarperCollins to Knopf, a division of Random House. Van Draanen came along with her and signed a contract for the four books she’d already written.

Now senior executive editor of Knopf Books for Young Readers, Siscoe marvels at the fact that she’s worked with Van Draanen on all of the author’s books, which include the 18 Sammy Keyes titles, two other series of four books each, and half a dozen standalones—including Flipped, which Rob Reiner made into a movie in 2010.

The series itself isn’t exactly a regular occurrence. Siscoe explained that there are many middle-grade trilogies. Longer series might boast four or five titles.

“Eighteen is incredibly uncommon,” she said. “… It’s been really quite a ride to have something last for so long. For me, as an editor, it’s amazing.”

Almost two decades of close collaboration have also worked to bring Siscoe and Van Draanen together: “I’m certainly friendly with all of my authors, but there’s something different and special with this relationship,” she said.

“Wendelin’s become one of my best friends. I can’t imagine life without her.”

Van Draanen revealed that she has a new standalone book in the works, so that professional relationship doesn’t have to end. But Sammy’s final bow does represent the closing of one door, at least—and it’s a door that’s been open for about 20 years.

“This is going to be the hardest part for me,” Siscoe said of the final Sammy Keyes book’s arrival. “… It’s like a person you don’t get to see very often, and now I don’t get to see her again. It feels like a loss to me.”

• • •

Sammy’s wave also drew the attention of critics, who praised the heroine for her ingenuity and spunk. The first of the series, Hotel Thief, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, and more of Van Draanen’s titles have been nominated for that honor in the years since.

Before that, however, a man who would become one of Sammy’s biggest fans already had his eye on Van Draanen. Tim Wadham, a professional librarian for almost 30 years and currently director of library services at Puyallup Public Library near Seattle, was serving on the Newbery Committee when How I Survived Being a Girl came out, and he recommended that book for the honor. While it didn’t make it to the final round in 1998’s competition (Out of the Dust won the medal), the librarian paid attention when Van Draanen began producing the Sammy Keyes books. They corresponded, as librarians and authors do, and so when the director found himself organizing the Puyallup Festival of Books, set for Oct. 3 and 4 of this year—less than a month after The Kiss Goodbye’s publication—he knew he wanted to do something huge.

“I began planning this big party,” he said, “because I love Wendelin. It’s the party she’s not doing herself.”

Several friends celebrated Wendelin Van Draanen in the weeks before the release of her final Sammy Keyes book. Some of them collaborated on a cake made to resemble a bookshelf with individual chocolates designed to replicate each title in the series.

Van Draanen—along with her husband and fellow author Mark Parsons—will be attending as special guests for the event, but that’s not all. Armed with a marketing budget to promote the festival, funded by lodging-tax revenue, Wadham set his sights on a publicity set piece that could double as a documentary.

So he traveled from Washington to the Central Coast with Dave Kellman—a director, videographer, and editor who works for a government television channel out of Tacoma—to create a short film about Van Draanen, Sammy Keyes, and the real-world locations that inspired the fictional town of Santa Martina.

Van Draanen lived and taught in Santa Maria for a time. It’s where she began raising a family of her own while bringing Sammy Keyes to life on the page. Residents of the city will recognize many of the landmarks that appear in the Sammy Keyes books, and the two-man film crew explored the sights the weekend of Aug. 23, getting Van Draanen’s comments at the police station, across from the mall, near a senior high rise, driving through the cemetery, in the City Hall parking lot, and from the bushes in front of St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church.

The author climbed into a raised planter presided over by a statue of the Virgin Mary to demonstrate for the camera how Sammy and her best friend Marissa hid among the leaves (and spiders) in an attempt to catch the culprit in Hotel Thief. Van Draanen cautioned, however, that while the physical locales inspired settings in the Sammy Keyes books, she rearranged the town as she saw fit. Thus, not every bush that appears in the series has a physical counterpart.

“It’s a fictionalized place, so you don’t have to be 100 percent accurate, but I think I’ve crouched in enough bushes in my youth and my adulthood—embarrassing as that is to admit—I’m pretty familiar with the process,” she said.

Another difference: The multi-story building that became the basis for the high rise where Sammy Keyes lives with her senior grandmother has no fire escape a teenager can use for furtively sneaking up and down. And the Heavenly Hotel’s analog on Broadway, the Town Center Hotel—damaged by fire late in 2013—isn’t exactly directly across the street.

All of this information went onto a memory card, from which the short documentary will be edited. Wadham plans to show the film at the Puyallup Festival of Books, where a videographer will collect more footage to add to an updated version.

As he spent the day with Van Draanen, seeing her former home—now boarded up, from the windows to the basement that inspired a climactic, black widow-infested scene in Search for Snake Eyes—and hearing her explain how Sammy and her city came to virtual life, Wadham only half-jokingly said that while his primary goals are to attract attention to the festival and showcase Van Draanen and her books, his secondary aim is to win an Oscar.

• • •

Of course, the first person at whom Sammy Keyes waved—before the editor, before the librarians and teachers who invite her to speak around the country, before the legions of fans who call themselves Sammiacs—was Van Draanen herself.

“I think that Sammy served as a really good guide for broadening my perspective on things,” she said.

Wendelin Van Draanen drew heavily on real Santa Maria sites and landmarks to create the fictional city of Santa Martina. She gave a documentary crew a tour of some of the main stops, including St. Mary of the Assumption Church, where the author climbed into the bushes to demonstrate how two of her main characters hid in an attempt to catch a criminal in Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief.

Remember, that’s about 30 years of perspective shifting, which might explain why Van Draanen burst into tears when she finally wrote the last words of the last book.

“Sobbing does not understate it. You know, it’s been bottled up for many, many years—that last sentence,” she said, her voice wavering. “And knowing what that last sentence was for years and years, and then just getting it out: There it was. I guess there was a lot of emotional buildup to the writing of those last two words.”

While 17 of the books are told in Sammy’s voice, this final story opens with the main character out of commission, so a new narrator is required. Van Draanen said she initially toyed with the idea of Death delivering the tale, but she instead opted to steer away from that route and use her own voice instead. That way, Sammy’s final story is being told by a real person.

“And I don’t think Death would have had the sense of humor that I injected,” Van Draanen said.

Though this is far from the end of Van Draanen’s writing career, the completion of Sammy’s story arc has prompted a lot of introspection. Van Draanen said that if she could choose to bring any of her characters to life, she would pick Sammy.

“And I would go back to middle school with her,” she said, “to do it all over again with her. … If you did [junior high] with Sammy, there would be an awesome factor to it.”

But, of course, Sammy can’t step from her pages into reality any more than time can reverse to take adults back to junior high for a do-over. All any of us can do is move forward, no matter what that future brings and how relationships change as we progress through life.

On the road again
Wendelin Van Draanen and her husband and fellow author Mark Parsons completed a national book tour earlier this summer, and they’re set now to embark on another. For their first journey, they drove a van bedecked in their book covers across the lower half of the country. Now, they’re heading north, stopping at more than 40 independent bookstores between here and Milwaukee. The first stop is at Coalesce in Morro Bay on Saturday, Sept. 13, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
For more information about the Sammy Keyes series—and a possible forthcoming TV series based on the books!—visit, follow @WendelinVanD on Twitter, or like

“I think that it’s probably akin to a mom seeing her kid go off to college, and knowing that you’re gonna miss them, and it’s going to be hard on you. But you set out in life to make them independent. So there they are: independent. And that is your goal,” Van Draanen said. “I was really fortunate to be able to see her off at 18. Eighteen books.

“I saw my sons off to college,” she continued. “That’s just kind of the evolution of growth. You get to the place you have to cut the apron strings. That is the best thing for all involved. …

“I can always go back and visit Sammy. There are 18 adventures I can pick up and look through at any time. I can go and visit Sammy at any time.”

Here, her voice broke.

“It’s really hard,” she said, then paused. The silence stretched as she composed herself. “But in a good way, you know? Like, what a blessing.”

For three decades, Sammy has been on Van Draanen’s horizon, waving her forward, beckoning the author on to each next new book. That plane is now clear, however, waiting for the next force to ripple outward and disturb the universe.


Executive Editor Ryan Miller still says Billy Pratt is his favorite character. Send comments to