Author bids emotional farewell to her Sammy Keyes young adult series

As she wrapped up her 17th Sammy Keyes young adult mystery book, author Wendelin Van Draanen was overcome with emotion.

“I wrote the final pages of the rough draft and cried,” she said. “And then I re-wrote it and cried. And then I re-wrote it about five more times and cried. And then I sent it to New York, and my editor cried.”

Not that Sammy Keyes books are intended to be tearjerkers.

But as Van Draanen finished the newest Keyes book, “Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise” (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.99), she knew that an important chapter in her own life was about to conclude.

“I always said that I wanted her to survive junior high and that I wasn’t going to take her into high school,” said Van Draanen, a Pismo Beach resident who will talk about her book at Barnes & Noble in San Luis Obispo on Saturday.

As the former teacher promotes her 17th Sammy Keyes book, Van Draanen is in the editing phases of her 18th and final one, “Sammy Keyes and the Kiss Goodbye.”

She can’t help but mourn for the character that helped her transition from school teacher to full-time author. “She’s been this big part of my life,” Van Draanen said.

While the Keyes books each take place a month after the previous one, real life has continued at its normal, quicker place. Along the way, Van Draanen had a stand-alone book, “Flipped,” made into a major motion picture directed by Rob Reiner, and she saw her two sons — now in college — grow up.

Van Draanen, who began writing while teaching at St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria, published her first novel in 1997. Her first Sammy Keyes book came out the following year. The final Sammy Keyes book will be published in the fall of 2014.

Originally, Sammy Keyes’ experiences were culled from the writer’s own life. But, she said, 18 books is a lot of material.

“I had pretty much exhausted my own events and experiences pretty early in the series,” she said.

Since then she has also incorporated experiences from her students and her own children. “Sammy Keyes and the Killer Cruise” takes place, as the title suggests, on a cruise ship. Sammy, who discovered who her father is in the previous book, “Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City,” goes on the cruise to get to know her father.

While on the cruise, she and a friend meet two boys from a wealthy family that is mourning the loss of the family patriarch. Soon after the patriarch’s final wishes are revealed — to the chagrin of his privileged offspring — the Kensington matriarch disappears. Then more and more Kensingtons are lost at sea.

While it’s the second to last Sammy Keyes book, it’s the final book written in Sammy’s voice. The last book in the series is narrated by Van Draanen. And while there have been some lingering mysteries throughout the series — like who Sammy’s father is — they’ll all be wrapped up by its conclusion.

While high school would surely provide more adventures for a girl like Sammy, Van Draanen said from the outset she wanted to focus on the junior high years.

“I see junior high as being pivotal years in a kid’s life, and I think it’s important for them to find themselves during those years.”

While ending the successful series might seem scary, Van Draanen said she’s grateful she made it to the end, providing readers with closure.

“When I was writing the 10th book, to think about getting to the 18th book, that’s a long way,” she said, “And a lot of things can happen. You can get hit by a truck, right? And I had all these secrets inside me, all these threads that I put in the series that don’t get revealed at the end of each book.”

While Sammy Keyes is Van Draanen’s longest series, she has done two others — the Shredderman series and The Gecko & Sticky books. She also has written several stand-alone novels, including “Flipped” and her first book, “How I Survived Being a Girl.” Her next book, she said, is a stand-alone novel, but mum’s the word on the story line so far.

Meanwhile, even as her sons attend college — both are enrolled at Cal Poly — Van Draanen, her husband and sons continue to play in the family band, Risky Whippet, which will perform a Christmas show at the Shell Cafe on Dec. 21.

“I like to say that we’re a cross between the Partridge Family and AC/DC,” she said. “We’re a family band that plays rock music.”

Two events on Saturday:

  • 2-3 p.m. Book signing. Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 894 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo
  • 11-11:45 a.m. Program and slideshow. Santa Maria Public Library, 421 S. McClelland St.