Monday, May 31, 2010

Wendelin Van Draanen Blog Tour: Day 1

Welcome to author Wendelin Van Draanen's first-ever blog tour! Along the way, Wendelin will answer questions about her writing life, including some never posed to her before.

To start off the 9-blog tour, Where the Best Books Are! is giving away three copies of Sammy Keyes and the Cold Hard Cash, the 12th book in her award-winning mystery series.

To enter, send me a comment with your name and address, or email me directly by midnight Tuesday, June 8. Enter as often as you wish and look for more giveaways along the tour.

Following Wendelin's post, you'll find my review of Cold Hard Cash (a fantastic summer read), then scroll down for a tour schedule, as well as links to participating blogs. Be sure to visit Wendelin's blog on the last day of the tour!

Q & A with Wendelin Van Draanen

Q. Wendelin, what inspired you to create the feisty super sleuth Sammy Keyes and how do you keep the character fresh? Also what's in store as the series heads toward its conclusion?

A. First, I'd like to thank you for launching this blog tour. I've been on book tours many times, but this is the first time I haven't had to deal with airport security. So thank you! Now onto your questions about Sammy Keyes.

I think the image we have of ourselves in middle school is one we carry with us through our lives. It’s alarming, really, how much of a lasting impact our tween and teen years have on our self-image and confidence, and I think this is especially the case with girls.

Creating Sammy Keyes as a spunky, curious, smart protagonist was not a conscious move on my part. I just wanted to spend time with someone I liked, and those were the traits that showed themselves. I was also drawn to her imperfections. Her hot-headedness. Her somewhat sassy reaction to authority. And it was interesting to me to realize that it was her imperfections that made me like her so much. She became the friend I wish I’d had in middle school. The one who would have stuck up

for me no matter what the cost to her.

I also didn’t consciously decide to write a series. I began with the idea for one mystery, but by the end of it I’d grown so attached to Sammy that I wanted to spend more time with her. So I began the second book. And the 20 hours of detention she gets for using the school’s PA system to clear her name in that book had to be served sometime, right? So I began on the third book. I had no contract, no request for these stories, and I collected plenty of rejects along the way. But I kept writing because—having a day job as a classroom teacher and seeing firsthand the issues kids wrestle with today—I thought there was a real relevance to the situations I was exploring through Sammy. I’m glad I hung in there because after the fourth book was complete, I got a multi-book deal and have been able to spend time with Sammy ever since.

I think what keeps the writing fresh for me—and consequently what keeps the series feeling fresh—is that Sammy’s world is not static. She grows up a month at a time from book to book, and although this evolution isn’t something that jars you if you read the books out of order (which is absolutely fine to do), her personal growth and the dynamic among her peers and the adults in her life keep things moving along and interesting. There’s also an overarching mystery (she doesn’t know who her father is) which will play out in the next couple of books, and then everything will be tied together by the end of the series (Book 18).

It’s been fun for me to “grow up” with Sammy, and interesting for me to see the wide range of readers who love her. From fourth graders to grandmothers, I think anyone who enjoys seeing the underdog triumph really relates to Sammy Keyes.

Thanks again for launching the tour. This has been great! I hope your readers will follow me to the second tour stop at Steph Su Reads ( where I’ll be tomorrow, doing a Q&A that involves questions about

my secret quirks, my book Flipped, and books in my future.

Sammy Keyes and the Cold Hard Cash

By Wendelin Van Draanen

Yearling, 2010, paperback

$7.99, ages 9-12, 293 pages

It's not every day that a girl startles an old guy to death and finds herself with wads of cash waiting to be spent. But Sammy Keyes isn't a typical 13-year-old, and she's about to find out how weird money can make her act, especially when it's not her own.

If you know Sammy the super sleuth from earlier books, you know that trouble has a way of running into her, then splintering into more problems than she knows what to do with, and before long she's sneaking around for clues and closing in on bad guys.

This time, Sammy wasn't even snooping. She was just slipping up the fire escape, like always, into Grams' seniors-only high-rise, where Sammy's lived illegally since her mother left, when she ran into an old guy on the fourth floor landing and he had a heart attack.

With his last dying breath, he begged Sammy to pull out $3,000 from his pockets and toss it over the railing.

Now, you don't exactly ignore a man's dying wish. So Sammy flung it over and raced inside to call 911, and since she's not supposed to be living at the Senior Highrise, she disguised her voice as an old lady's and didn't mention the cash.

But then, after the paramedics had left, there was all that cash waiting to be found.

What would it hurt if Sammy snuck downstairs after Grams was asleep and searched the bushes, then sort of kept the money, you know, to help Grams make ends meet and get some things from the mall, not just for her but for her friends?

It wasn't hard to talk herself into it after the dead man's daughters came to claim his stuff from the hotel across the street and never mentioned a word about the cash. If no one's missing it, what would it matter if Sammy powered through a chunk of it?

And with Brandon's pool party coming up, how else can she afford a new swimsuit?

But now things are getting complicated. Sammy's lying to Grams, her best friends and kind old Hudson, and making matters worse, a guy in a beret named the Jackal and his buddy Sandman are casing Gram's next door neighbor's apartment looking for the money.

It'll take a camera, a frumpy disguise, some fast talking and a good baseball swing to get Sammy through this one.

Having never read a Sammy Keyes book, I had no idea what a blast it would be to tag along. You instantly feel like Sammy's closest chum. From the first page, she takes you by the hand and pulls you along, all the while confiding every thought she has.

If this 12th book is anything like the rest, your reader will be racing from one book to the next, reading back to you the funny parts, and hopping excitedly when you tell her there are still six installments to come.

Tour Schedule:

May 31st: Where the Best Books Are –

June 1st: Steph Su Reads -

June 2nd: Through A Glass, Darkly –

June 3rd: Mrs. Magoo Reads –

June 4th: The Children’s Book Review –

June 5th: Write for a Reader –

June 6th: Mundie Moms -

June 7th: Library Lounge Lizard -

June 8th: Wendelin’s Jog Blog -

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mr. Peek and the Misunderstanding at the Zoo

Written and illustrated by Kevin Waldron

Templar Books, 2010

$15.99, ages 4-8, 48 pages

When Mr. Peek, the zookeeper, wakes up to find he can barely button his jacket, the zoo animals overhear him grousing about his bulging belly and think he's chiding them in this funny story about the folly of jumping to assumptions.

Setting off a chain of misunderstandings that only a mischievous boy can sort out, Mr. Peek begins his day thinking his green jacket, the one that makes him feel important, is much too snug and assumes it's because he's grown fat overnight.

Though only one button pops off when he puts the jacket on, Mr. Peek is baffled by the weight gain and grumbles about it as he goes about his job feeding and caring for the animals, each time getting more and more worked up.

At first Mr. Peek chides himself for being too plump, then his sour disposition gets the better of him, and he sees all sorts of bad things coming his way. Soon he's paranoid his bosses will see his expanding waistline and say he's too old to do his job.

All the while the animals think Mr. Peek is talking to them and they're becoming very glum. Mr. Peek, of course, is so busy wallowing in self-pity that he has no idea that his remarks are being misconstrued.

By the time Mr. Peek is in front of the monkeys, he's muttering to himself that he's a pariah. "Everyone's out to get you!" he declares, unaware that all of the monkeys behind him are bugging out their eyes with worry that they're no longer liked.

But what is Mr. Peek's son Jimmy doing giggling behind a tree in the monkey playpen and why is his jacket dragging on the ground?

What makes this book so fun is how absent-mindedly Mr. Peek goes about his day. He's oblivious not only to how irrational he's being (to think he can outgrow a jacket overnight), but to how harmful his words of self-reproach are to the animals and himself.

The instant I saw this book, with its nostalgic illustrations, I was transported back to my favorite Golden Books by Alice and Martin Provensen and Aurelius Battaglia, illustrators whose simple, uncluttered style, flat blocks of color and brilliant silhouettes enveloped me in innocence.

Whimsical and witty, Waldron's debut is a clever twist on the idiom, "much ado about nothing." By book's end, readers get one more big giggle and leave with a lasting lesson not to leap to conclusions.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Smart Books for Early Reading

Learning to read can be an exhausting affair for little ones. There are so many new words to stretch out and recognize that it's easy to get burned out after a page or two.

That's why it's so great to find beginner books that explore ideas they can relate to, and make them feel happy and accomplished.

This spring, I've highlighted five beginner series that are certain to reduce wiggles at reading time. Some are silly, others sweet, and all are fast-paced and irresistible to look at.

Max Spaniel (Two Books)

Written, illustrated by David Catrow

Orchard Books, 2009-2010

$6.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

A goofy, lovable pooch named Max tries to convince everyone that he's not a dog in this side-splitting series about chasing your dreams.

In every book, Max gets a wild hare to be something new and gets in one funny predicament after another.

In Dinosaur Hunt, he struts about like a great hunter and ends up creating his own prey out of garden tools, then in Funny Lunch, Max declares he's a great chef, only to realize he's made a pizza mess.

Catrow's illustrations are incredibly funny and keep readers giggling.

Elephant and Piggie (12 Books)

Written, illustrated by Mo Willems

Hyperion Books for Children, 2007-2010

$8.99, ages 4-8, 64 pages

A fun-loving pig and straight-laced elephant quibble about how to go about things, but always make up in this charming graphic series by Caldecott Honor winner Willems.

Elephant, a sobering fellow with spectacles, is sometimes frustrated by Piggie's blithe approach to life, but by story's end Piggie always gets him to loosen up and see the bright side of things.

In one adventure they decide to hide out and surprise each other, only to find themselves alone and sad that the other has left them behind.

In the latest book, Can I Play Too?, due out June 8, Gerald and Piggie meet a snake who wants to play catch, but wonder how he can play without arms.

In each mini drama, Willems uses short, pithy dialogue, speech balloons, fun sound words, and hysterical facial expressions to keep readers eager to read on.

Benny and Penny (Three Books)

Written, illustrated by Geoffrey Hayes

Toon Books, 2008-2010

$12.95, ages 4-8, 32 pages

In this delightful graphic series, two mice siblings learn to apologize, forgive and make friends as they play and explore.

In Just Pretend, Benny refuses to let little sister Penny play pirate with him, then calls her a crybaby for being upset about it, only to feel badly when he can't find her.

In The Big No-No, the siblings accuse a hedgehog neighbor girl of stealing their pail, only to realize they jumped to conclusions and owe her an apology.

In the latest, The Toy Breaker, they try to hide their toys from cousin Bo because he always breaks them, then discover a way to play so that nothing gets damaged.

Readers will relate to their squabbles, and along the way, learn how to make up with their own buddies. The format, a series of simple panels and talk balloons, makes the stories skip along.

Cork & Fuzz (Six Books)

Written by Dori Chaconas,

illustrated by Lisa McCue

Viking Juvenile, 2005-2010

$13.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

A short muskrat and a tall possum discover that friends can be very different and still have fun adventures together in this gentle series reminiscent of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad.

In the first five books, the scrappy pair learn about acceptance, good sportsmanship, compromise and standing up for a friend while getting into all manner of mischief.

In the latest adventure, The Babysitters, Cork loses track of a baby porcupine he's babysitting and it's up to Fuzz to help find him.

Exciting adventures and adorable pictures keep readers coming back for more. (This is such an adorable pair, parents will want to track down stuffed toy look-alikes to surprise their readers.)

Astroblast #1: Code Blue

Written, illustrated by Bob Kolar

Cartwheel Books, 2010

$5.99, ages 4-8, 40 pages

A space monkey gets flustered when an alarm goes off in the Astroblast Snack Shack and none of his crew is there to make treats in this first book in a clever new series.

It's up to readers to round up the monkey's crew before a crowd of googly-eyed aliens line up to buy Milky Way shakes and Creamy Moon cakes. But first they'll have to navigate through a maze, dig for moon stones, locate missing tools and untangle wires.

Kolar, author-illustrator of Racer Dogs, combines a rousing rhyme, bold illustrations and fun puzzles that break up the text.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Two New Books That Celebrate Motherhood

As a mom, nothing makes my heart skip like feeling my boys snuggle up close or unexpectedly slip one of their hands in mind.

In celebration of Mother's Day on Sunday, I thought I'd share two new books that remind me of all those quiet little moments that make my heart swell.

Waiting Out the Storm

By Joann Early Macken,

illustrated by Susan Gaber

Candlewick Press, 2010

$15.99, ages 4-8, 32 pages

A mother tells her anxious little girl not to fear the rumblings of a storm in this breathtaking poem about having someone near to get through scary times.

As the first gusts of the storm stream through her hair, the rosy cheeked girl timidly calls out from behind a tree to her mother, who is kneeling in a field clipping daffodils for her basket.

The girl asks her mother why the sky is carrying on so, and her mother explains that the wind is calling out to the raindrops to play and the thunder is stumbling around, but not to fear, for it is only a sound.

But what will the turtles do, the ducks, chipmunks and chickadees, when the rain pours down and the lightning flashes? Not to worry, the mother comforts her, they too have someone near.

Macken's lyrical words transform a dark day into something playful, while Gaber's illustrations envelop you with warmth.

At times you almost feel raindrops skipping off the page, and when the girl holds tight to her mother's shirt, you feel the depth of their connection.

I Love My Mom

Written and illustrated by Anna Walker

Simon & Schuster, 2010

$9.99, ages 2-6, 32 pages

An adorable little zebra named Ollie shares all of the reasons he loves his mother in this soft-spoken story about a child's unwavering affection for his mom.

While Ollie and his mom shake out wrinkles from a freshly laundered blanket, he explains how special he feels when his mother makes the day about them and they wander happily with nowhere in particular to go.

They look, talk, giggle and walk, and along the way see new things, like a giant fluffy duck pruned from a bush and a dragonfly flitting by with delicate wings.

Next, on a arched bridge Ollie hunkers down to see a marvelous site, a line of orange fish swim downstream, as his mom watches only him, content in his happiness.

Next they walk through a cloud of butterflies, then play hide-and-seek among the flowers, before heading home for cups of cocoa, a playful bath and the best thing of all, a goodnight kiss.

Walker's watercolors are so tender, they win you over before you begin the story. Spare, delicate images echo back the love between mother and son, and make you warm and toasty too.