HomeBooks by AgeAges 9-12Wendelin Van Draanen Talks About Sammy Keyes

Wendelin Van Draanen Talks About Sammy Keyes

By Wendelin Van Draanen, for The Children’s Book Review
Published: June 4, 2010

The Children’s Book Review presents a guest post by Wendelin Van Draanen, author of the Sammy Keyes series. Her first book was published in 1997, and since then her titles have been nominated for State Award Master Lists all over the country. The Sammy Keyes Mysteries have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Children’s Mystery. Additionally, she has won the Christopher medal for Shredderman: Secret Identity, and the California Young Reader Medal for Flipped. Her books have been translated into many foreign languages, and have been optioned for film and television projects.

Thanks for inviting me to talk about Sammy Keyes. Writing this series has been quite a journey, but it would be complete prevarication to say that I knew where I was going with Sammy when I started the series. She’s like a visitor who was invited in for the night and wound up moving in. And although Sammy’s adventures always have an underlying life-lessons theme—something I’d like my readers to think about and factor into the decisions they make in their own lives—what’s interesting to me is how much I’ve learned from spending time with Sammy.

I’m not talking about research. I have learned a tremendous amount from the research involved in writing the Sammy Keyes series, but what I’m referring to here is learning about how to be a better person.  I think it’s natural to fall into physical patterns and habits, especially after you become part of the workforce. You get up at a certain time, you go to work, come home…you fall into a routine.

I think it’s the same with one’s pattern of thinking. We get used to thinking a certain way, and don’t wander outside those thinking habits unless something comes along and makes us. Reading is good for this, and so is writing…if you let it. The adage is “write what you know”, but I’ve written over 25 novels now, and believe me, I wasn’t carrying around all the necessary knowledge when I began. I picked things up along the way, through a combination of research and reflection.

The reflection has come from walking in Sammy’s shoes. Seeing things through her eyes. And I think a good example of this is when I was in the midst of Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy.

At the time my husband and I were living in a run-down 400 square foot rental in a kind of bad part of town. We were saving our money, trying to be patient about getting into our own place, and were living in this house with our two small sons. Not a great situation, by any means. Gang graffiti would get sprayed on our fence, completely drug crazed people would hide in the shadows of our porch, and the couple across the street were regularly on the verge of killing each other.  We also lived near the Salvation Army building, so homeless people were always in the neighborhood.

My defense against this environment was to lock the house, draw the shades, and long for the day when we could move out of there.  Then one Saturday when my husband was at work and I was home alone with my kids, a homeless woman knocked on my door.

Now, in Sammy’s world, Sammy had just discovered that a girl she had secretly followed was homeless, living by herself in a refrigerator box down near the riverbed. And in the midst of trying to figure out how to help her, Sammy suddenly recognizes that her own situation—living illegally with her grandmother in a small seniors-only apartment—is not the curse she thought it was. At least she has a roof over her head. And a couch to sleep on. And a grandmother who loves her.

So that’s where I was in the story when this homeless woman appeared at my door with a sack of wet clothes wanting to know if she could borrow my dryer.

This wasn’t fiction. This was real life. And my knee-jerk reaction was, Sorry, no. I mean, I didn’t know what was in her sack of clothes. What if it had…lice? And my two little boys were right there, holding my legs. Really, I just wanted to close the door.

But through my mind ran the thought… Sammy wouldn’t close the door. Sammy would help her. How can you write one thing and live another?

And then the woman said, “They’re clean. I promise. There’s just not enough sunshine left to dry them.”

So I took her clothes and while she sat on my porch bench, I got them drying.  Then I went outside and sat and talked with her. Turns out she had two children, too, who had been taken from her because she couldn’t care for them. She didn’t know where they were. She told me she slept nights in bushes near the mall, and was grateful, so, so grateful that I’d agreed to dry her clothes.

An hour later, she left my porch with what I’d given her— dry clothes and an extra jacket.

What she gave me was a new perspective on my life.

I have lots of other stories about how Sammy has affected me, but I’m sure I’ve taken up my allotment of space. Thanks for sharing your blog, and for letting me share this story.  I hope your readers will follow me to tomorrow’s tour stop. I’ll be at Write For a Reader (http://www.writeforareader.blogspot.com) where I’ll be discussing how the “quirk” winds up in my characters.  Happy reading everyone!

Wendelin Van Draanen: Sammy Keyes and the Cold Hard Cash Blog Tour

May 31st:            Where the Books Are – http://wherethebestbooksare.blogspot.com

June 1st:             Steph Su Reads – http://stephsureads.blogspot.com

June 2nd:            Through A Glass, Darkly – www.throughaglass.net

June 3rd:            Mrs. Magoo Reads – www.mrsmagooreads.com

June 4th:            The Children’s Book Review – www.thechildrensbookreview.com

June 5th:             Write for a Reader – http://www.writeforareader.blogspot.com

June 6th:            Mundie Moms – http://mundiemoms.blogspot.com/

June 7th:            Library Lounge Lizard – http://www.libraryloungelizard.com/

June 8th:            Wendelin’s Jog Blog – http://etrtr.blogspot.com/

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Bianca Schulze is the founder of The Children’s Book Review. She is a reader, reviewer, mother and children’s book lover. She also has a decade’s worth of experience working with children in the great outdoors. Combined with her love of books and experience as a children’s specialist bookseller, the goal is to share her passion for children’s literature to grow readers. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, she now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado.

  • That’s the second time you’ve made me tear up today, Wendelin.

    June 4, 2010
    • It was a heart-breaking and heart-warming piece. Wasn’t it?!

      June 4, 2010
  • I love this story…you learned from what you had written and were able to mirror Sammy’s response to a person in need. This is a great reminder of how important it is to encourage young people to read books like this with real-life lessons to be learned from the experiences of characters in a novel.

    June 4, 2010

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