The best thing about series is that they span A LOT of years. I mean, stand-alone books can cross a lot of time from beginning to end. Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of a Whole, a book narrated (for the most part) by the son of “the most hated man in Australia” and the nephew of “the most loved man in Australia” takes the protagonist through childhood and adulthood, even flashing back to position him before he is born. One Hundred Years of Solitude covers seven generations of a family and something like The Time Traveler’s Wife takes a nuanced look at timelines by shooting back and forth through time to show an out of order life of husband and wife Henry and Clare. It’s satisfying to follow characters throughout an entire life (you know, to see how it’s done) in books, but there is something about reading series that breaks up that long, generational life into smaller, more manageable pieces. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are notorious for this, especially since when you read all thirty-eight or thirty-nine or forty of them in order, you don’t just see their characters gradually changing and growing older, you also see the fantastical/sci-fi world improving on technology and science, developing culture, and watching how storylines in previous books become historical events later in the series.
I have been reading Wendelin van Draanen’s Sammy Keyes series since 1998 when I was in grade five, and Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack is already on my little Amazon pre-order for its July release, the fifteenth book in the series. In the first book, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, Sammy is (and, no joke, I just opened my copy of this book to check Sammy’s age and I found a little note that says, “To Amy – so glad you like Sammy Keyes. Keep on reading! Wendelin van Draanen” and I am REALLY struggling to remember WHEN THAT HAPPENED) in seventh grade at William Rose Junior High School – she’s just started and the transition from elementary school to junior high is a focus of this first book. She lives with her Grams in a Senior Highrise apartment that she sneaks in and out of, because she is definitely too young to live there. The reason for the secrecy is that Sammy’s mom, who she calls Lady Lana, went to be an actress in Hollywood and left Sammy (and her cat Dorito) behind.
Each Sammy Keyes book starts out with a mystery, and the mystery in the Hotel Thief is pretty self-explanatory:
Grams told me my binoculars were going to get me into trouble. I just didn’t believe her. See, Grams worries. All the time. About the way I dress and the food I eat, about me getting home on time, and especially about nosy Mrs. Graybill seeing me come and go. It’s not like a try to upset her – I try real hard not to – it’s just that somehow Grams winds up worrying and I usually get blamed for it.
So when she’d see me looking out the window with my binoculars and say, “Samantha Keyes, you mark my words, those things are going to get you in a big heap of trouble someday,” I’d just say, “Mmm,” and keep right on looking. I figured it was just Grams doing some more worrying about nothing.
That is, until I saw a man stealing money from a hotel room across the street - and he saw me.
The mystery at the heart of a Sammy Keyes book is always a good one, but over the years of reading these books, the characters that are a part of and surrounding the mystery make me keep coming back year after year. Sammy is one of my favorite young protagonists. She’s straightforward and down to earth, and her sense of humor gets a couple of snort laughs per book. She grows and matures throughout the series from a seventh grader thinking, “Now maybe I’m kind of skinny and maybe I don’t wear makeup or get all decked out to go to school, but there’s no way I look like I’m in the fourth grade,” to her first kiss a handful of books later with her archenemy’s brother Casey. She still lives with her Grams as the series continues, but her elusive mother makes a couple of appearances and Sammy learns more about herself and her family, and (hopefully eventually!) the identity of her father.
But then there are all of the characters along for the ride with Sammy. There’s her best friend Marissa, her friends Dot and Holly, the horrible Heather Acosta, her Grams, an older man who lives down the street named Hudson, and Officer Borsch, and there is a lot of Sammy growing on him and him growing on Sammy throughout the books (like Sammy says, “Now I don’t mind policemen. Actually, when I was in the fourth grade I wanted to be one, but that was before Lady Lana left me with Grams and I had to start worrying about someone finding out. When you’re living where you’re not supposed to be living, it doesn’t take long to figure out that you should stay away from people who ask nosy questions, and believe me, policemen like to ask lots of nosy questions”). And it all takes place in the fictional California town of Santa Martina, a backdrop that carves out a place for Sammy to ride on her skateboard, passing the familiar landmarks that are present in every book.
Van Draanen has said before that she has plans for a few more Sammy Keyes novels, and I’ll be reading them until the end of the series. Sammy Keyes is brave, smart, funny, and the fact that she makes mistakes, is flawed, and learning about who she is and where she fits in, makes her such a likeable protagonist. You can start just about anywhere in the series if you just want a great, well-written mystery series, but if you want to watch Sammy grow up and grow up with Sammy, reading them in order lets you right in to her world and keeps you there for a while.
And, just for the record, my favorite so far has been Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary. It’s a really great one, and if you’ve read it, then you totally know why.