Middle Grade Review, Reviews


MMGMBack when I was researching agents for CAVEBOY, I came across a book called SAMMY KEYES AND THE NIGHT OF SKULLS by Wendelin Van Draanen. As I was reading I got the distinct feeling I’d jumped into the middle of a series. Well, it turns out I’d picked up book fourteen! I enjoyed it enough I planned to go back and read the others, and now I’m on track with the first book, SAMMY KEYES AND THE HOTEL THIEF. I probably won’t read them all right away or you’d have months of reviews as there are now fifteen books with at least two more planned.

Here’s the description from the author’s website. It’s a bit dated :).

Sammy Keyes is perusing the neighborhood through binoculars when she spots something fishy at the Heavenly Hotel. She’s sure she’s just seen a robbery, now she just has to prove it. [SAMMY KEYES AND THE HOTEL THIEF] is the first book in the exciting new series of middle-grade mysteries starring the smart and spunky seventh-grade ace detective. “This girl sleuth is no well-mannered Nancy Drew. She’s hot-tempered, nosy and not always obedient. In short, she’s someone I want to read about again. A winning debut!” (Margaret Maron, author of The Bootlegger’s Daughter and One Coffee With).

On to the five things I loved most–and if you’ve read my MMGMs the last two weeks, you’ve probably already guessed No. 1:

1. The mystery! – Somehow I ended up reading a string of mysteries in a row, and each one has handled the final reveal differently. Sammy’s story is more similar to THREE TIMES LUCKY than THE WESTING GAME in that the story is told in first person, so we only have the clues from her point of view. Yet again, I thought this was a well-crafted mystery. I figured it out when Sammy did. I liked the way Wendelin Van Draanen showed that Sammy had solved the mystery without giving it away to those who might not have picked up on the clues Sammy did. Some readers might be surprised by the resolution and then think, “Of course!”

2. Sammy’s living situation – I’ve seen some unique living situations for main characters, but the fact that Sammy lives in her grandmother’s seniors-only apartment adds an extra element of suspense to the story. Not only is Sammy trying to identify the hotel thief, she’s figuring out how to sneak in and out of the apartment building without being caught by her grandma’s nosy neighbor Mrs. Graybill. This maneuvering becomes part of the central plot as well when the thief becomes confused about which window he saw the person with the binoculars in.

3. The villain – Of course there’s the hotel thief, but there’s also the villain of middle school, a character I know from reading the later book is destined to become Sammy’s arch nemesis. It tells us a lot about Sammy’s character that her first impulse is to punch Heather Acosta in the nose, but the way she gets Heather back for faking a broken nose is ingenious. Way to go, Sammy!

Which leads me to …

4. Spunky Sammy – Sammy is fearless. She’s not afraid of the bully. She’s not afraid of Mrs. Graybill. She’s not afraid of the hotel thief (well, maybe a bit). She’s not afraid to go into the hotel her grandmother calls seedy or put herself right in the middle of a police investigation. She stands up to Officer Borsch, sneaks onto the mall roof, and solves the mystery. Basically she’s who a lot of girls want to be–or at least pretend to be. Her life isn’t perfect, but she knows how to make the best of it.

5. Sammy’s revelation – One of the messages in this book is that things aren’t always as they seem. It reminds me of THE SEVENTH LEVEL in that way. Here’s a passage that shows how she grows without giving away any spoilers.

“I thought about Hudson and Rockin’ Rick and about things not being what they seem. And I thought about other people I know–like Mrs. Graybill and Officer Borsch–and wondered again why they were the way they were, and if maybe they had secret lives as nice people. I also thought about Gina and T.J., and what being them would be like.”

A funny side note about that revelation–it comes about as she’s knitting. A spunky heroine who’s a beginning knitter!

If you haven’t read this series, you should definitely check it out. I’ll certainly be making my way through the other fourteen books!

Is anyone else a Sammy fan? Let me know in the comments.

For querying writers, Wendelin Van Draanen is represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown.


  1. I have only read this one out of the series. I read it to my class and they LOVED it! Especially the boys- a few of them went on to read the rest of the series. Sammy is such a fun character and so easy to relate to for kids and adults. I really enjoyed your review and your 5 things. 🙂

    1. Thanks! It makes sense that boys would enjoy this series, too. Sammy’s not too girly, even in the later one I read where she has a boyfriend. Glad to hear your students loved it!

    1. It’s been almost a year since I read the book, so I don’t remember all the details of the mystery. But your comment reminded me that I do want to go back and read more Sammy, so thanks!

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