Detectives Week Review: Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief by Wendelin Van Draanen

Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief  by Wendelin Van Draanen. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. Currently available.

Genre: Middle Grade Mystery

Face Value: I checked out an old library bound copy, and I love the oddly colored images on the cover. It’s a cover that hints at mystery with its typewriter-inspired font and assorted objects that turn out to be clues throughout the story. It’s has lasting appeal and could potentially attract both boy and girl readers. I also love that it’s a middle grade cover that doesn’t look too “junior” – the artwork is grown up enough that no young reader would be ashamed carrying this book around.

Does it break the slate? For sure. Sammy is often put in less-than-ideal situations because she’s young, and every single time she uses her savvy instincts to assert herself. Even though this often gets her into trouble, she refuses to become a more demure version of herself. Sammy is also an astoundingly good friend. She is loyal to her BFF Marissa through thick and thin. I thought it was great to read this example of a strong friendship between two girls, because the whole “frenemies” thing gets old after a while.

Who would we give it to? This is the perfect book for those girls who are awkward outliers in middle school but grow up to be the cool kids in college. You know who I’m talking about – the girls sporting high tops, eclectic thrifty style, and a snarky attitude. There are a lot of girls just like Sammy out in the world and I’d love to get this book into their hands.

Review: Sammy Keyes has a problem: she’s curious. And the world isn’t kind to curious children. Sammy’s curiosity has turned her into a bit of a spy. She enjoys watching the neighborhood through binoculars while enjoying the safety of her grandmother’s apartment. One day, while peering through the binoculars at a disguised man at the local hotel stuffing a bag full of cash, Sammy realizes that the person she’s spying on can see her. And she waves at him. It’s a stupid decision and she immediately regrets it, but what’s done is done – the hotel thief knows that someone saw him. And Sammy is now inadvertently the witness to a crime.

Sammy’s insatiable curiosity takes her deeper into the investigation of the hotel robbery and several other thefts that have taken place in the neighborhood recently. Through a series of entertaining shenanigans she climbs to the roof of a local mall, meets a local radio celebrity, finds out exactly what a seedy hotel looks like from the inside, and accidentally spies on her grandmother’s hot date. Sammy lets nothing get in her way – not even an Employees Only sign. She’s much more of a rule breaker than I have ever been, and sometimes I worried for Sammy because I knew she would get in trouble. It never concerned her, though, because getting in trouble was worth it when she was ultimately solving crimes that affected people she liked.

Sammy’s relationship with her grandmother is a beautiful thing. Her mom is out of the picture (it is implied in the book that her mother ran off to pursue her career, but that mystery is left unsolved for future stories). Sammy lives in her grandmother’s apartment in a senior living complex. It’s illegal for her to live there, so she has to keep all of her stuff in one drawer, never leave anything sitting out for others to see, and she often has to hide in the closet when people stop by. It’s a frustrating lifestyle for Sammy and I was surprised at how much she accommodated this unusual living situation out of necessity. But Sammy and her grandma have limited financial resources and they have to make do with what they’ve got, and their love for each other compensates for whatever amenities the apartment might lack. I loved how grandma tried to allay Sammy’s curiosity through fiber arts projects. She taught Sammy how to knit against her will, and rather than keeping Sammy’s mind off of the mystery it allowed her more thinking time to puzzle over the clues. I am a knitter who also loves knitting because it gives me thinking time, so this was a great bonding moment for Sammy and I. The respect in Sammy and her grandmother’s relationship runs deep, and Sammy’s frustration when she disappoints her grandma is deeply felt because they have such a tight bond.

When I was a kid, there was nothing I hated more than adults who didn’t trust me just because I was young. It is infuriating when adults do not respect and value the input of young people. This happens to Sammy all the time. Yes, she has to lie frequently to cover up her living situation, but she’s telling the truth about everything that matters. And NO ONE LISTENS TO HER. There’s even a heartbreaking moment when grandma doubts Sammy. Thankfully, Sammy shows her Slatebreaking nature by taking matters into her own hands whenever adults refuse to do the job. Ugh, grown ups! Sheesh. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to be one. (Seriously though, this aspect of Sammy’s story reminded me to listen to my students. Really listen.)

Have I mentioned Heather Acosta yet? Ooooooh, that Heather Acosta. She is Sammy’s archenemy. Heather makes her evil presence known when she makes Sammy’s first day of 7th grade a nightmare. We see Heather through Sammy’s eyes, so she obviously doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, although Van Draanen does just enough hinting so that we readers understand there is more to Heather than meets the eye. It is the perfect set up for a long-standing rivalry that feels so appropriate for the middle school setting of the series.  Everyone has a Heather Acosta in their life somewhere, and this is an element of the story that works for boy and girl readers, both young and old. We root for Sammy in the battle against Heather, but we also want to know what makes Heather tick.

Sammy Keys and the Hotel Thief is a fast trip through Sammy’s world and we meet a lot of characters, some of whom I felt were underdeveloped. But it’s the first book in a series, and ultimately I didn’t mind meeting all of these people because I hope to spend more time with them as I read other books about Sammy.  She is an excellent balance of the bright curiosity and awkward self-consciousness that come in the early teen years, and she balances these traits in a terrifically Slatebreaking way. Sammy is the perfect girl detective for those readers who might find Nancy Drew a bit too polite for their tastes.

Reviewed from library copy.


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One Response to Detectives Week Review: Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief by Wendelin Van Draanen

  1. nicole mathewson says:

    The sammy keyes series is my best friend. I will always want to be her. In a way she is just like me. She got me through the end of 6th grade. I read the rest of that series that summer. I will always love her and sometimes i look back and say, “thankyou wendelin. Thankyou for sammy keyes and for bringen us mac ‘n’ salsa, too.” This will always sit on my shelf next to percy jackson and diary of a wimpy kid. Sammy keyes will always be my bffl

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