Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Goodbye, Sammy. I'll never forget you.

My mom had a 30% off gift card at Vroman's, so we went and got a lot of books on Saturday. And one of the books I picked up was Sammy Keyes and the Kiss Goodbye.

I read the whole thing that afternoon and it pretty much ripped my heart out.

It's hard to say goodbye.

In case you don't know, the Sammy Keyes series is a series of eighteen books intended for middle school readers, written by Wendelin van Draanen. (Anyone here see the movie Flipped? That was based off of something else she wrote.) Sammy Keyes follows this amazing heroine, who is unsurprisingly named Sammy Keyes, through seventh and eighth grade. They take place about a month apart, and they're all mysteries. Sammy never thinks of herself as a detective, but that's really what she is--she's a fierce, brilliant adventurer and detective. Personally, I think she'd make a great P.I. when she grows up.

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS MAY BE AHEAD. I'll try not to spoil anything too major, though.

The basic premise is that Sammy is this seventh grade kid who keeps getting involved in mysteries. Part of it is that she's curious, and once she's involved she can't let something go. She's brave and fierce and she frequently makes bad decisions. She also has a hard time getting to places on time. There's a reason the other characters call her "Sidetrack Sammy."

Sammy lives with her grandmother in a government-subsidized building--in which minors are not allowed. So she has to sneak up and down the fire escape and spend a lot of time away from home and generally do a lot of sneaking. This also creates tension whenever Sammy runs into the police, because if they find out about her living situation, she and her grandma are stuck.

The reason Sammy lives in the government building? Her flakey mother is off in Hollywood, trying to become an actress. Lady Lana (Sammy's mother) is actually one of my favorite characters to read about, largely for her sheer insufferableness. (I'd hate Lana in real life.)

Because of her living situation, Sammy really tries to keep the police from getting involved in stuff. But that's a bit hard with Officer Borsch, a by-the-rules Javert type policeman, on her tail. Sammy just seems to rub Officer Borsch the wrong way, especially in the earlier books. The first time they met, he gave her a ticket for jaywalking. But he goes through some truly well-done character development as the series progresses

Here are some things I love about Sammy Keyes (both the character and the books):

--Sammy is not a perfect person. She slacks off on her homework, lies left and right, jaywalks ALL THE TIME, and frequently runs afoul of the police--well, one police officer in particular. Officer Borsch is also a great character with a lot of amazing development!

--But Sammy always stands up for what is right, and when she makes mistakes she (eventually) admits to them and pays for them. I mean, the third book has her doing twenty hours of detention for using and abusing the school's PA system. TWENTY HOURS. That's a lot.

--The books are really funny. Sammy's got a great sense of humor. She's very sarcastic and she gives things and people little mental nicknames, especially if she doesn't know their real names (the Splotter, the Crocodile, Camo Butt, etc.). Billy Pratt, one of Sammy's classmates, is introduced in one of the later books, and he provides great comedy relief as well. Seriously, I love Billy. He's such a goofball!

--But van Draanen isn't afraid to get serious. In the fifth book, Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Mustache Mary, Sammy tangles with drug dealers and busts a meth lab. She's in seventh grade at the time. In the seventh book, Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes, she gets involved in gang business. Sammy also faces her own internal issues, such as her feelings about her mother's abandonment and the fact that she doesn't know who her father is.

--The books help teach the readers about serious issues, like drug abuse, abandonment, gang violence and bullying, without being boring or preachy. Instead of just saying "Don't do this," van Draanen really shows you why you shouldn't do this, and also why it might seem like a good idea at the time when it's not in the long run.

--Not everything is about Sammy. There are times when Sammy's friends rally and support her during emotional crisis, but there are also--probably more often--times when Sammy has to focus on and support them. This especially happens with her best friend Marissa, who has a destructive crush on a jerk called Danny. Marissa and Sammy's relationship is deep and complicated and it rings true to life. They're similar enough to get along and different enough to play off each other in really funny ways. Marissa's a lot more emotional than Sammy, and I'd say that Sammy's quite a bit tougher than Marissa.

--The relationship with Heather Acosta is always interesting. Heather Acosta is pretty much the Draco Malfoy of the series. She's Sammy's classmate and, for reasons of her own, she hates Sammy. Their relationship kicks off with a bang in the first book, when Heather pokes Sammy with a pin and Sammy punches Heather in the nose, and it goes more or less downhill from there.

--But in a lot of ways Heather is understandable. Yes, she's a massive jerk, but van Draanen examines Heather's emotions and motivations, especially in some of the later books. She has reasons for what she does, and her bitterness is deep and complex. (That said, she's still a wonderfully petty villain who you love to hate.)

--There's a touch of romance, especially in the later books, but it doesn't overtake the plot. And it is totally believable and adorable. Through the story, van Draanen manages to develop one of those insane situations where it makes perfect sense when you're reading the books, but if you try to explain to someone they'll probably get lost. I love those.

I found Sammy Keyes in seventh grade, and I got to it in kind of a roundabout way. I picked up a different book by Wendelin van Draanen, a book called Runaway. Runaway follows the story of Holly, a twelve-year-old girl escaping from an abusive foster home and making her own way across the world. The book had a huge impact on me, and it's still one of my favorites. It is absolutely beautiful and I highly recommend it.

At the back of the book van Draanen had written an afterword. I read it and got confused, because it referenced the Sammy Keyes series. (Sammy appears near the end of Runaway.) Then I realized that Holly had started out as a character in Sammy Keyes--she shows up in the third book, Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy. I really loved Holly and I wanted to read more about her, so I picked up a Sammy Keyes book, figured out which was the first one, and started from there.

And I think it was at about the third one when I fell in love. Holly is still one of my favorite characters, by the way. She shows up a lot and she's amazing.

So thank you, Holly, for being so strong and amazing and for guiding me to Sammy. And thank you, Sammy, for making me laugh and helping me figure out what's wrong and what's right and for being your brilliant self. I will never, ever, ever forget you.

And there's always rereading.


  1. Wow. I absolutely love how you pulled this all together. Beautiful and eloquent. Thank you.

    1. Thank you! And thank you so much for writing the Sammy Keyes books. And thank you especially for Runaway! I was rereading it yesterday and it is still definitely one of my favorite books of all time. You're amazing!

  2. That was incredible! It put everything I was feeling into just the right words.