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Wendelin Van Draanen

y Wendelin Van Draanen

Publishing Information: Knopf Books for Young Readers: New York, 2006
ISBN: 9780375835223 / 9780440421092 (PB)
: 288 p.
Ages: 12 & Up

Twelve-year-old Holly has had to grow up fast. She has moved from abusive foster home to abusive foster home since the death of her mother, but this time she is not going to stick around. Armed with very little money, a journal given to her by a teacher meant to hold poetry entries and determination, Holly runs away and runs right  into a world that so few really understand. Through Holly’s eyes we see the true world of heartache, despair, danger and very little hope that fills the everyday lives of this nation’s homeless. A touching and eye opening story for young readers 12 and up.

Book Talk:
Twelve-year-old Holly Janquell has lived a tough life for one so young. She has spent much of her childhood living homeless with her well meaning but drug addicted mother. When Holly’s mother dies of an overdose  Holly is left to suffer abusive foster homes and becomes the victim of an overburdened and seemingly uncaring “system”. One day she decides that enough is enough and runs away. Her difficult and often dangerous story is told to us through the words of her journal, given to her by a teacher who wished to encourage her to write poetry. Holly’s story is both heartbreaking and enlightening as readers are swept into the world of the homeless-.a world that so many misunderstand and oftentimes shun. Holly’s story will have readers both laughing and crying as she struggles to survive armed with nothing but her determination to be a part of a family…and a notebook.

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Child Abuse
Foster Homes
Homelessness and Orphans
Journal Writing

Awards & Reviews:
Bluegrass Award Nominee, 2008
Lone Star Reading List, 2008
Sequoyah Award Nominee, 2009
Young Readers' Choice Award Nominee (Louisiana), 2009

Booklist, September 1, 2006, p. 112
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
, October 1, 2006
Children's Literature
, September 1, 2006
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2006
KLIATT, Septmber 1, 2006
Publishers Weekly
, October 23, 2006, p. 51
School Library Journal
, September 1, 2006, p. 220
VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates, December 1, 2006

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. Before Holly runs away she endures many types of abuse. Discuss the abuses that Holly has faced both on the street with her mother and in her foster homes. Do you think that in light of her circumstances, Holly made the right decision to run away? Why or why not?
  2. Throughout the story Holly writes a variety of poems. Choose a poem from the first half of the book and one from the second half. Analyze the meanings of the poems and how Holly grows as a poet. Discuss the themes that her poetry conveys and how t hose themes parallel her personal evolution.
  3. Discuss why Holly won’t refer to herself as homeless. When in the story does this denial begin to break down? Why does Holly’s admission of her situation enable her to finally move toward finding the family she so craves?
  4. Holly rations food throughout her journey. Discuss what a day would be like without eating the proper amount of food. Explore ways in which the class can help provide food for the homeless in their own community.
  5. At one point in the story a homeless woman says to Holly, “Homeless don’t write in journals!”. What assumption have students made about the homeless? Challenge them to research the facts about homelessness and report their findings.
  6. How does writing in a journal help Holly in ways that counselors and social workers cannot?
  7. There are many people that reach out to help Holly throughout the story-workers at shelters and soup kitchens, farmers and another adolescent. What are ways that students and their families can help others in similar situations in their community?
  8. Why is Holly afraid of social services and what went wrong with “the system”?
  9. Given what she has been through, was it ok for Holly to shoplift necessities for survival? Why or why not?

Journal Writing Activities:

  1. Throughout the story Holly is constantly in search of the basic things she needs to survive-food, clothing, shelter, light. Take a personal inventory of your stuff. Separate the list into things you need and things you have because you want to have them. Write in your journal how this exercise has caused you to examine the importance of possessions and your level of appreciation for what you have in your life.
  2. Holly fantasizes about how her life will be once she gets settled. Her fantasy contradicts her realities every step of the way. Write about a fantasy you have for your future and how you can turn your fantasy into a reality.
  3. Holly steals to get by. Write about the moral and ethical aspects of her stealing. Is it right or wrong? Is it that simple? When, if ever, is it acceptable to steal?
  4. In her desperation to escape Aaronville, Holly drops from a tree onto a moving train. She describes it as the scariest thing she’s ever done. Write about the scariest thing you have ever done and if you would ever do it again.
  5. Put yourself in Holly’s shoes—you are alone in the world with no family, no home and no friends. Now write about the people you would miss the most and why.

Portions of the group discussion and journal activities were prepared by Colleen Carroll-Random House Children’s Books

Related Websites:
Author’s website:

Stand Up For Kids:
This site’s mission is a commitment to the rescue of homeless and street kids, and offers and abundance of facts and information about the realities of runaway children.

Education World:
This site contains an article about the benefits of journal writing and writing prompts to facilitate student journal writing.

Kids Peace:
State specific foster care and family service information

National Coalition for the Homeless:
A network of people who are currently experiencing or have experienced homelessness as well as others committed to ending homelessness.

Detox Help:

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Can't Get There from Here
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Theories of Relativity
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Tomorrow, Maybe
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by Coe Booth, 2006
The White Horse by Cynthia D. Grant, 1998

Other Books by the Author:
How I Survived Being a Girl, 1997

Flipped, 2001
Swear to Howdy, 2003

Sammy Keyes
Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, 1998
Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man, 1998
Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, 1999
Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf, 1999
Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary, 2000
Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy, 2001
Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes, 2002
Sammy Keyes and the Art of Deception, 2003
Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen, 2004

Attack of the Tagger, 2004

About the Author:
Books have always been a part of Wendelin Van Draanen's life. Her mother taught her to read at an early age, and she has fond memories of story time with her father, when she and her brothers would cuddle up around him and listen to him read stories.

Growing up, Van Draanen was a tomboy who loved to be outside chasing down adventure. She did not decide that she wanted to be an author until she was an adult. When she tried her hand at writing a screenplay about a family tragedy, she found the process quite cathartic and from that experience, turned to writing novels for adults. She soon stumbled upon the joys of writing for children.

Feedback from her readers is Van Draanen's greatest reward for writing. "One girl came up to me and told me I changed her life. It doesn't get any better than that," she said. Van Draanen hopes to leave her readers with a sense that they have the ability to steer their own destiny-that individuality is strength, and that where there's a will, there's most certainly a way.

Her first book was published in 1997, and since then her titles have been nominated for State Award Master Lists all over the country. Now in its tenth installment, the Sammy Keyes Mysteries have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Children’s Mystery four times in six years, with Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief bringing home the statue.

Additionally, she has won the Christopher medal for Shredderman: Secret Identity, and the California Young Reader Medal for Flipped. Her books have been translated into many foreign languages, and have been optioned for film and television projects. She lives in California with her husband and two sons. Her hobbies include the “Three R’s”: Reading, Running and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Fun Facts
Born January 6 in Chicago, IL

Previous Jobs
Forklift driver, coach (sports), musician, high school computer science teacher

Inspiration for writing
The past, the future, the struggle for a happy ending!

. . . foods Mexican (spicy!); chocolate (dark!)
. . . clothes to wear Sneakers, shorts, and sweatshirts
. . . colors Emerald green with a splash of midnight blue

Another interesting fact:

To research for “Runaway”, Van Draanen actually spent time sleeping outdoors, stowing away in a bus, and exploring a shelter to have a taste of the homeless experience!
| ©2004 - Rhode Island Teen Book Award Committee | Aaron Coutu, Chair