August 09, 2007


Sammy Keyes and the Wild Things. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $15.99.

Prom Dates from Hell. By Rosemary Clement-Moore. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

      Today’s girl detectives have little in common with their progenitor (progenitress?), Nancy Drew – except, of course, pluck. Modern young female sleuths are far more with-it, more aware of the world around them, less involved in family mysteries and mysterious heirlooms and more in grand designs that can even lead them to go so far as to save the entire world. And not all are high-school students: one of the most famous is a middle-schooler. That would be Sammy Keyes, Wendelin Van Draanen’s popular character, whose 11th adventure, Sammy Keyes and the Wild Things, has her taking on an ecological threat. During a camping trip that she hadn’t wanted to take, Sammy stumbles on a mystery (okay, Nancy Drew stumbled on them, too): an endangered condor is found injured. Sammy and two other girls from the camp take Marvin (their name for the bird) and decide to find out what happened to him. As they follow clues, they get lost; and they meet two boys from school who are out backpacking, and they all get lost; and then they find out that there is an evil poacher somewhere around. To learn this, they rely heavily on Sammy’s instincts: “I nod because he is right. But still, something feels wrong.” At one point, Sammy wonders, “Why wasn’t the truth more important than the blame?” – and this becomes her watchword here, as in her other mysteries, and it is a clue as well. Everything gets complicated in part because the lost group of five has only a single tent to sleep in, which means girls and boys stay together. One of the boys is the brother of nasty Heather Acosta, “the Gossip Grenade,” and Heather starts broadcasting to everyone that Sammy “slept with my brother,” and…well, suffice it to say that Sammy has personal issues as well as a mystery to solve. She and her friends end up “in a restricted place where condor poachers and men in evil-looking jets were meeting to engage in high-stakes activities that could get us all shot.” While the danger is real enough, Sammy finds her way through it, as always, her pluck preventing the plucking of the birds whose defender she has become.

      Maggie Quinn has more than birds to defend. She is a high-school student – a senior and honor student, in fact – and wants nothing more than to get through the last six weeks of the year and graduate. But there’s a problem: Maggie is on the school newspaper and is a yearbook photographer, so she has to pay considerable attention to…prom. Prom, that bane of so many high schoolers’ lives, that hellish creation where showoffs show off and so many are made miserable – but it’s not supposed to be quite this hellish or miserable. Rosemary Clement-Moore’s first novel for young readers takes everything a high-schooler fears and worries about involving prom into the Twilight Zone. There’s the head cheerleader and her followers, all of whom are named Jessica. There’s a chemistry experiment that seems to summon something called the Shadow. There are bad things happening to the school-ruling athletes. Maggie figures this much out: “The one thing I knew was this: If I was right, and someone had summoned some thing to bring down the Jocks and Jessicas, then regardless of the source, of the justness of the targets, the intent was Evil. With a capital E.” Maggie’s sleuthing takes on an amusingly otherworldly character, as when she finds out that one school baseball player has been offered a full college scholarship: “I tried to smile naturally while a chill spread through me. Anyone who has ever seen a movie – ever – knows that nothing dooms a character quicker than a bright future: pregnant wife, farm in Montana, baseball scholarship…” Although Maggie decides that “I sucked at being a superhero,” she manages to confront the minions of Hell with notable courage (instructing one, “Get out of my bathroom, you stinky son of a bitch”), hold back the demonic hordes, and save the senior class and maybe the world. And yet, by the end, she still has three weeks to go until graduation….

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