When Wendelin Van Draanen was in college, an arsonist torched her family’s business. Six months later her father died. Faced with financial ruin and an uncertain future, Van Draanen dropped out of school, and together with her mother, two brothers and sister, rebuilt the business from the ground up. But Van Draanen never released the pent up anger, frustration, and heartache that accompanied the tragedy. She turned to writing and found it cathartic. According to Van Draanen, her first literary attempt was a “horribly written” screenplay about her family’s struggle to survive. Although Hollywood never produced the screenplay, the act of writing filled Van Draanen with a sense of hope.
Soon, she switched to novels where she could make up happy endings and catch the bad guys in the end. Her first manuscript measured a hefty 427 pages. As soon as she mailed it off to publishers, she began the next one. Van Draanen wrote this way for ten years, rising at 5:00 am each day to write for an hour before going to work. Then one day, her husband gave her a copy of Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. “It was about the magic of growing up and reminded me of all the wonderful mischief my brothers and I got into when we were young.” When Van Draanen began writing How I Survived Being a Girl (HarperCollins, 1997), she didn’t know it was a children’s book. By pure chance the manuscript landed on the desk of an astute children’s editor who asked Van Draanen to delete 200 of the 400 pages.
Before How I Survived Being a Girl ever appeared in print, Van Draanen had already written the first four Sammy Keyes mysteries. Teaching high school computer science on the central coast of California for 15 years gave Van Draanen had a direct pipeline to kids, and she knew their fears and problems were not reflected in the books they read. So she created Sammy Keyes, a feisty, intelligent girl who lives with her grandmother in a seniors-only apartment building. And the kids responded. One seventh-grade reader from Virginia says, “I especially love Sammy because she has such a gutsy approach to life. . .I like the way she takes the bull by the horns, confronts her problems head on, and usually comes out on top. I think you have created a character who can be a role model about being spunky.”
Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief (Knopf, 1998) won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for the Best Children’s Mystery, and Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary (Knopf, 2000) was an Edgar nominee. But a fifth-grade reader from North Carolina gives her the highest praise: “Mystery books really get my blood running. They simply suck me in, and yours have the strongest sucker.”
Sammy Keyes is the friend Van Draanen wishes she’d had in junior high school. When Van Draanen was in seventh grade, her nemesis was a girl named Paula. Van Draanen fashioned Sammy’s nemesis, Heather, after Paula. “Sammy’s getting back at Heather in ways I’d wished I’d gotten back at Paula.”
The plots for all Van Draanen’s novels are complex and multi-faceted. When she embarks on a new story idea, she writes the first few chapters and then begins her research. For Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes (Knopf, 2002) she read several gang land autobiographies and interviewed police officers who work with gang members. For Flipped (Knopf, 2001) it was chickens; for Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief it was astrology; and for Sammy Keyes and the Art of Deception (Knopf, 2003) it was Renaissance Faires. After spending a month or more researching, Van Draanen continues writing. According to Van Draanen, “the time you put into research is not reflected in the words,” but she knows the research gives her work an air of authenticity and credibility.
In her free time, Van Draanen enjoys playing keyboards and electric guitar in a rock band. When she and her drummer-husband, Mark, jam, their two boys often tell them to keep in down!
Van Draanen says she uses her writing “to help kids go down the right path. . .I want kids to believe that they can shape their own destiny; to see that the steps and decisions they make now will have a direct bearing on the kind of person they become.”