Local author Wendelin Van Draanen collects the world around her. She picks up pieces, like a photo from a Yahoo! News article or something glimpsed in an Arizona airport, and stores them away like puzzle pieces to be assembled later.
- IMAGE COURTESY WENDELIN VAN DRAANEN
Her problem (if you can really call it a problem) is that she doesn’t always immediately know into which puzzle a particular piece fits. Individual bits can sit around for ages, but Van Draanen has a mind for puzzles, and when they ultimately click into a certain book, they really click.
Take that Yahoo! News photo. Years ago, Van Draanen came across an image of a grinning skull with “really bad teeth” while browsing around the web on her computer. It was wearing a blue knit cap and had a cigarette clamped in its jaws. She read the article explaining the social and historical significance behind the gussied-up exposed cranium (no spoilers here) and thought, “Wow! Who can believe this? This is going to be in a Sammy Keyes book someday.”
Then she wrote some other books.
The image’s someday finally came with Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls, the 14th book in Van Draanen’s popular series about a girl living in the fictional Santa Martina—recognizable to anyone with even a passing familiarity of its real-world Santa Maria inspiration.
Such a prop may seem a bit macabre for a book about junior high students navigating school, life, parents and guardians, relationships with each other, and the inevitable mystery, but Night of Skulls kicks off on Halloween with a haunted house and winds its way through other holidays that share roughly the same real estate on the calendar, but are probably less known to average trick-or-treaters. Think Dia de los Muertos.
“I have what I call a healthy fear of death,” Van Draanen said. “I think I obsess about it more than the average person.”
She said writing this book helped her deal with her own thoughts on the often-traumatic reality, bringing her a measure of peace.
Celebrate life and all the rest with Van Draanen as she signs books at Bendele Books in Santa Maria from 11 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Oct. 22, and at Barnes and Noble in San Luis Obispo from 1 to 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23. ∆