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Van Draanen, Wendelin

Van Draanen, Wendelin

PERSONAL:

Married; children: two sons. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, running, and playing in a rock band.

ADDRESSES:

Home—CA.

CAREER:

Worked variously as a teacher of high school math and computer science, a forklift driver, a sports coach, and a musician.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Children's Mystery, Mystery Writers of America, and Best Book for Young Adults selection, American Library Association, both 1999, both for Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief; Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination for best juvenile, 2001, for Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary, 2003, for Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes, and 2004, for Sammy Keyes and the Art of Deception; Teen's Choice Award, 2004, for Flipped.

WRITINGS:

How I Survived Being a Girl, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.

Flipped, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

Swear to Howdy, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Runaway, Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.

"SAMMY KEYES" SERIES

Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.

Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.

Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.

Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

Sammy Keyes and the Art of Deception, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen, illustrations by Dan Yaccarino, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

Sammy Keyes and the Dead Giveaway, illustrations by Dan Yaccarino, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.

Sammy Keyes and the Wild Things, Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.

"SHREDDERMAN" SERIES

Secret Identity, illustrated by Brian Biggs, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

Attack of the Tagger, illustrated by Brian Biggs, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

Meet the Gecko, illustrated by Brian Biggs, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.

Enemy Spy, illustrated by Brian Biggs, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.

SIDELIGHTS:

Wendelin Van Draanen is the author of the popular "Sammy Keyes" mystery series for young readers, featuring an indomitable tomboy with a penchant for landing herself in trouble. The misunderstood heroine, whose formal name is Samantha, often starts out as the primary suspect in some sort of minor crime and finds the real culprit through efforts to clear her own name. The middle schooler also combats some tough family and social situations with the same sense of humor and adventure. Van Draanen's first book in the series—only her second ever published—won the Edgar Award for Best Children's Mystery in 1999.

Until she was in the fourth grade and her sister was born, Van Draanen grew up the sole daughter in a family with three children, having an older and a younger brother. The situation provided the inspiration for the intrepid, tomboy protagonists of her books, though the future author described her own juvenile persona as tentative and shy. Entering adolescence was a time of added uncertainty for Van Draanen. Her coming-of-age adventures formed the basis for the comical problems she later forces Sammy Keyes to suffer.

When Van Draanen was in college, a catastrophe in her family inadvertently opened up a new door for her: their family business was destroyed by arson, and she took time off from school to help out in the aftermath. For a time, they were financially ruined, and Van Draanen was troubled by feelings of anger and helplessness. She began to have problems sleeping, and to help alleviate some of the stress, she decided to write about the incident with the hope of turning it into a screenplay.

Van Draanen discovered that writing was not only cathartic but enjoyable. What she found most rewarding, she later noted, was the ability to create a happy ending, to have her characters make positive gains through personal difficulties. Van Draanen eventually found her vocation as a high school teacher of computer science, but she also had ten finished novels, each around four hundred pages long, by the mid-1990s. By then she had married and had begun a family of her own in California.

Van Draanen was inspired to try her hand at writing for children as a result of a chance gift from her husband of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. The result was How I Survived Being a Girl, published in 1997. It is Van Draanen's first work for young readers before her "Sammy Keyes" series, and the works share a heroine with pointed similarities. Carolyn, the narrator of How I Survived Being a Girl, is a tomboy who feels somewhat alienated from the girls in her neighborhood and at school. She much prefers tagging along with her brothers and their friends, especially a neighbor boy named Charlie. During one particular summer, Carolyn spies on neighbors, digs foxholes with Charlie, steals a book, and helps her brother with his paper route.

The setting of How I Survived Being a Girl is vague, but reviewers seemed to agree that Van Draanen placed her story at some point in the relatively recent past. Girls still wore dresses to school, for instance, and were strongly discouraged from becoming newspaper carriers—official and unofficial biases that had vanished by the end of the 1970s. Carolyn manages to skirt the skirt issue by wearing shorts under hers; meanwhile, she derides her peers who play with dolls and wear frilly, impractical clothes. Yet, as she begins a new school year in September, Carolyn finds that some of her attitudes are beginning to change. She sees Charlie in a new way, and starts to speak out and become more politically active. She even starts a petition drive to force some changes at her school. When a baby sister arrives in her family, this softens her attitude, too. "I tell her … how being a girl is actually all right once you figure out that you should break some of the rules instead of just living with them," says Carolyn at the end of the book.

A Publishers Weekly contributor called How I Survived Being a Girl an "energetic first novel" and "a sunny, funny look at a girl with a smart mouth and scabby knees." A Kirkus Reviews contributor praised Van Draanen's style and the narrative voice of her alter ego, Carolyn. "Her irreverent narration is engaging," stated the reviewer about the book's heroine, "and she's refreshingly astute about family and neighborhood dynamics."

Van Draanen found she liked writing in a child's voice, so she began writing a teen-detective story that later evolved into a popular and much-praised series. The first of these, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, arrived in 1998. Here, readers are introduced to the feisty, intelligent title character who lives with her grandmother in a seniors-only apartment building. Because of this, Sammy is forced to sneak around just to get to school; naturally, her social life is severely curtailed as well. Sammy lives with her grandmother, readers learn, because her mother, whom she refers to as "Lady Lana," has moved to Hollywood.

Sammy has some formidable enemies. One is the nosy Mrs. Graybill, who lives down the hall; another is a girl, Heather, who torments her daily at school. To keep herself amused at home, Sammy often observes the goings-on of the outside world with a pair of binoculars from her fifth-floor window. "Usually you just see people looking out their windows, pointing to stuff on the street or talking on the phone," Sammy states, "but sometimes you can see people yelling at each other, which is really strange because you can't hear anything."

Sammy is particularly fascinated by the shady Heavenly Hotel across the street, and one afternoon spots a fourth-floor resident moving about a room rather quickly. She then sees the man rifling through a purse while wearing gloves. As Sammy tells it: "I'm trying to get a better look at his face through all his bushy brown hair and beard, when he stuffs a wad of money from the purse into his jacket pocket and then looks up. Right at me. For a second there I don't think he believed his eyes. He kind of leaned into the window and stared, and I stared right back through the binoculars. Then I did something really, really stupid. I waved."

The man flees the room, and Sammy wonders whether she has just witnessed a crime and if she ought to tell someone about it. Her grandmother is busy making dinner, and getting to a police station is also problematic. Then, her grandmother calls her into the kitchen and reminds her to feed the cat. The doorbell rings, but Sammy is so agitated that she does not quietly make for the closet, as is her usual drill when an unexpected visitor arrives. "This time, though, I jumped. I jumped and yelped like a puppy. And all of a sudden my heart's pounding because I know who it is," Sammy panics. "It's the guy I saw at the Heavenly Hotel, come to shut me up for good."

Eventually, Sammy manages to tell her story to the police, who fail to take her seriously at first. Meanwhile, Heather is plotting against her at school, but Sammy's cleverness uncovers the plot in time. She also learns that a burglar has indeed been stealing from purses in the neighborhood. Other characters in the book include a pair of comical detectives, a girlfriend named Marissa, a local DJ, and an eccentric astrologer who is also a robbery victim. They all help Sammy bring the thief to justice. "The solution will likely come as a surprise, and the sleuth delights from start to finish," asserted a Publishers Weekly contributor in a review of Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief. A Horn Book review by Martha V. Parravano described Van Draanen's protagonist as "one tough, smart, resourceful seventh grader," and compared the heroine and structure of the lighthearted detective novel to those of popular adult mystery writers such as Sue Grafton, who are adept at "making the investigator's character and private life at least as interesting and complex as the plot."

Van Draanen followed the success of the first Sammy Keyes book with a second that same year, Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man. As it opens around Halloween time, Sammy still lives with her grandmother and is eagerly outfitting herself as the Marsh Monster for the holiday. While trick-or-treating, she and her friends bravely approach the "Bush House," a scary manse with wildly overgrown shrubbery. But then Sammy is nearly knocked down by a man wearing a skeleton costume and carrying a pillowcase. She and her friends advance and discover a fire in the house, and Sammy puts it out. They also find that a burglary has just taken place, and several valuable books are missing from the house.

Sammy, naturally, finds herself drawn into the drama and wants to solve the whodunit. She learns that the Bush House is neglected because its owners, the LeBard brothers, are feuding with one another. Once again, her cleverness helps her find a solution and also helps her keep one step ahead of Heather, who continues to cause her problems. Sammy, for instance, sneaks into Heather's Halloween party and plants a baby monitor in her room—which provides Sammy with evidence that Heather has been making prank phone calls in Sammy's name. Yet Sammy's natural talent for making friends also helps her forge an unusual bond with Chauncy LeBard, and she even gets the two warring brothers to agree to talk. In the end, she unmasks the skeleton man and recovers the missing rarities. Martha V. Parravano, reviewing the story for Horn Book, praised it as a "highly readable mystery [that] hits the ground running." Reviewer Lynda Short also offered positive words in School Library Journal: "Readers will enjoy the mystery, hijinks, plotting, and adult comeuppance."

Van Draanen's third entry in the series, Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, was published in 1999. Still walking that fine line between intellectual brilliance and juvenile delinquency, Sammy finds herself sentenced to twenty hours of detention, which she must fulfill by helping out at the local Roman Catholic church. One day, while cleaning the windows of St. Mary's, she sees a girl she does not know and approaches her. The girl vanishes, and Sammy is suddenly alerted to the distress of Father Mayhew, who has just discovered his valuable ivory cross missing. Sammy, of course, is the first suspect in the theft, but other possible culprits surface as well, and in order to clear her own name, she resolves to catch the thief herself. On another day, she again sees the mysterious girl at the church's soup kitchen and eventually learns that she is homeless.

Again, Van Draanen paints Sammy as a typical adolescent. There is more enmity with Heather, and she is determined to beat her foe in the local softball league championships. In the end, it is Sammy's offer to help a group of musical nuns who do missionary work out of an old school bus that helps solve the mystery of Father Mayhew's missing cross. "As always, quirky characters are Van Draanen's strength," remarked Kay Weisman in a Booklist review. An assessment from Jennifer Ralston in School Library Journal praised the main plot of Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy as well as the other storylines, both recurring and new. Ralston noted the storylines provide "depth and interest to an already engrossing mystery while capturing the angst of junior high school." Beth E. Anderson, reviewing the book for Voice of Youth Advocates, commended Van Draanen's heroine. "Sammy is genuine, funny, devoted to her friends and blessed with a strength of character that lets her reach for a peaceful solution," Anderson wrote.

Van Draanen wrote another entry in the series that also appeared in 1999, Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf. Set during the Christmas season, this story occurs when Sammy is still in seventh grade and becomes involved in her community's holiday parade. She is assigned to the "Canine Calendar Float" and is charged with babysitting a famous Pomeranian, the calendar cover dog, Marique. Parade chaos ensues, however, when a trio of culprits dressed as the Three Kings throw cats onto the hound-laden float. The prized Marique vanishes, and its owner, wealthy Mrs. Landvogt, blackmails Sammy into finding Marique in order to avoid paying the fifty thousand dollar ransom demanded. An elfin girl, Elyssa, turns out to be a runaway, and Van Draanen weaves her plight and the dognapping together and ties it up, according to critics, with another satisfying conclusion. Once again, however, several suspects must first be eliminated and comical plot twists steered through. This time, Sammy manages to befriend the formidable Mrs. Graybill, too. Remarking on Sammy's penchant for making friends both younger and much older than herself, School Library Journal contributor Linda Bindner noted that "Van Draanen handles the relationships with style and sensitivity."

A fifth book in the series, Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary, was published in 2000, followed by Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy in 2001. Reviewing the latter title in School Library Journal, critic Wanda Meyers-Hines Called it "clever and fast-paced, and … filled with cliff-hanger chapter endings and characters with secrets."

The next book in the series, Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes, finds Sammy being given a "surprise" by a frightened girl in the mall. Sammy understands the girl's fear when she meets the nefarious Snake Eyes. A contributor to the TeenLit Web site commented: "The last few sentences of each chapter left me wanting more. At times, I felt I couldn't put down the book."

In Sammy Keyes and the Art of Deception, Sammy is at an art gallery for a school project along with Grams and her septuagenarian friend when she sees paintings that fascinate her. Suddenly, a man armed with a squirt gun comes in and steals some paintings. As Sammy and her grandmother try to figure out why the paintings were stolen, several subplots ensue, including Sammy's ongoing feud with Heather, and Sammy's strange feelings for Casey, Heather's brother. Writing on the KidsReads. com Web site, Marya Jansen-Gruber noted that the author "has created a wonderfully entertaining story with quirky language and colorful images, one that takes you inside Sammy's thoughts and feelings."

Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen finds Sammy celebrating her birthday when she finds a dead cat. This is only the first sign portending a day of bad luck and puzzles, which include more dead cats turning up in the city dumpsters and the reappearance of her mother, who informs her that her birth certificate is wrong and that she is actually celebrating her thirteenth birthday once again, which Sammy takes as an ominous sign. When Heather's brother Casey gives her a four-leaf clover, however, Sammy's luck begins to turn. Diana Pierce, writing in the School Library Journal, called the book "another hit in a solid series." Kathleen Odean wrote in Booklist that Sammy's "life [is] believably complicated and imperfect."

In Sammy Keyes and the Dead Giveaway, Sammy, for once, is partially guilty of the misdoing, namely the disappearance of her teacher's love bird. When her archenemy Heather becomes a suspect, Sammy starts feeling guilty. Her uneasiness is further heightened when she begins receiving threatening messages. Another mystery arises, however, namely the question of who is throwing rocks through the windows of elderly people's homes. In her review in Booklist, Francisca Goldsmith commented that "the clever twist at the end of the story is sure to delight Sammy's fans." School Library Journal contributor Elizabeth Fernandez wrote that the story's "final cascade of stunning revelations will have readers on the edge of their seats."

In 2004, the first book in the author's "Shredderman" series appeared on bookshelves. Secret Identity introduces readers to Nolan "Nerd" Byrd, a math whiz whose secret identity is Shredderman, a cyber-hero who sets out to expose school bully Bubba Bixby. Bubba not only picks on his classmates but also cheats and steals. With the use of a digital camera, Nolan uncovers the evidence he needs, sets up a Web site to expose the bully, and then tries to figure out how to get people to view the site. Writing on the KidsReads.com Web site, Sarah A. Wood called Secret Identity "the first book in what promises to be a hilarious, original and action-packed series." In a review for Booklist, Jennifer Mattson wrote: "Kudos … for delivering a character-driven series that's spot-on for middle-graders and great for reluctant readers."

Attack of the Tagger finds Nolan tracking down a graffiti artist who spray paints everything in sight, including the playground equipment. In the process, however, Nolan becomes a suspect himself and must post photos and information on his Web site, Shredderman.com, to clear his name. Jennifer Mattson, writing in Booklist, called this second installment in the series a "balm for all those dweeby kids who will see themselves in Nolan and cheer him." School Library Journal contributor Christine McGinty noted that the story is "packed with plenty of action and humor."

The third book in the "Shredderman"series, Meet the Gecko, finds Nolan meeting actor Chase Morton, who plays Nolan's hero, "The Gecko,"on television. When Nolan finds out that Chase is being stalked by an evil reporter, he sets out to use his Shredderman.com Web site to expose the journalist. In his review in Booklist, Todd Morning described Meet the Gecko as "a light-hearted, fast-moving story." School Library Journal contributor Jennifer Cogan wrote: "Reluctant readers will find this book accessible."

In the next book in the series, Enemy Spy, Nolan is having difficulty protecting his secret identity from his classmates as he pursues a real-life spy ring and is in danger of being found out by the press as well. Kim Carlson, writing in the School Library Journal, commented favorably on the book's "fast-moving plot," and Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan noted: "Writing in first person, Nolan tells his own story in a snappy style."

Van Draanen turns to a more serious theme in her 2006 book titled Runaway. Telling her own story through journal entries and poetry, twelve-year-old Holly recounts her experiences as a homeless runaway from evil foster parents. "This is a touching, realistic, beautifully written story that anyone will be able to enjoy," wrote Jocelyn Pearce on the Curled Up with a Good Kid's Book Web site. Pam Gelman, writing on the Common Sense Review Web site, commented that the author "clearly knows kids this age well." Booklist's GraceAnne A. DeCandido concluded: "The ending of this taut, powerful story seems possible and deeply hopeful."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Van Draanen, Wendelin, How I Survived Being a Girl, HarperCollins, 1997.

Van Draanen, Wendelin, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, Knopf, 1998.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 1998, p. 131; April 1, 1999, Kay Weisman, review of Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, p. 1415; September 1, 1999, p. 146; March 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy, p. 1272; February 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of Secret Identity, p. 975; September 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of Attack of the Tagger, p. 125; October 1, 2004, Kathleen Odean, review of Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen, p. 330; January 1, 2005, review of Secret Identity, p. 774; February 1, 2005, Todd Morning, review of Meet the Gecko, p. 962; May 1, 2005, Gillian Engberg, review of Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen, p. 1543; August, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Enemy Spy, p. 2030; September 1, 2005, Francisca Golsmith, review of Sammy Keyes and the Dead Giveaway, p. 137; September 1, 2006, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Runaway, p. 112.

Children's Bookwatch, February, 2005, review of Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen; September, 2005, review of Enemy Spy; December, 2005, review of Sammy Keyes and the Dead Giveaway; September, 2006, review of Runaway.

Horn Book, July-August, 1998, Martha V. Parravano, review of Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, pp. 498-499; November-December, 1998, Martha V. Parravano, review of Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man, p. 743.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1996, review of How I Survived Being a Girl; January 1, 2004, review of Secret Identity, p. 42; July 15, 2004, review of Attack of the Tagger, p. 694; December 15, 2004, review of Meet the Gecko, p. 1210; August 15, 2006, review of Runaway, p. 853.

Kliatt, September, 2006, Myrna Marler, review of Runaway, p. 19.

MBR Bookwatch, June, 2005, review of Meet the Gecko.

Publishers Weekly, January 6, 1997, review of How I Survived Being a Girl, p. 73; April 27, 1998, review of Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, p. 67; February 2, 2004, review of Secret Identity, p. 77; January 3, 2005, review of Meet the Gecko, p. 57; May 15, 2006, "Fiction Reprints," discusses reprints of author's works, p. 74; October 23, 2006, review of Runaway, p. 51.

San Luis Obispo Tribune (San Luis Obispo, California), September 27, 1999.

School Library Journal, February, 1997, Kathleen Odean, review of How I Survived Being a Girl, p. 106; July, 1998, p. 100; September, 1998, Lynda Short, review of Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man, p. 211; July, 1999, Jennifer Ralston, review of Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, p. 101; September, 1999, Linda Bindner, review of Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf, p. 229; August, 2000, p. 190; February, 2001, Wanda Meyers-Hines, review of Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy, p. 122; March, 2001, Sarah Flowers, review of Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, p. 87; May, 2004, Edward Sullivan, review of Secret Identity, p. 158; October, 2004, Diana Pierce, review of Sammy Keyes and the Psycho Kitty Queen, p. 180; November, 2004, Christine McGinty, review of Attack of the Tagger, p. 156; January 1, 2005, Jennifer Cogan, review of Meet the Gecko, p. 774; July, 2005, Kim Carlson, review of Enemy Spy, p. 110; November, 2005, Elizabeth Fernandez, review of Sammy Keyes and the Dead Giveaway, p. 150; August 15, 2006, Jennifer Ralston, review of Secret Identity, p. 853; September, 2006, Faith Brautigam, review of Runaway, p. 220.

Time for Kids, September 30, 2005, Brenda Iasevoli, interview with the author, p. 7.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 2000, Beth E. Anderson, review of Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, pp. 40-41.

ONLINE

Common Sense Review,http://www.commonsensemedia.org/ (March 16, 2007), Pam Gelman, review of Runaway.

Curled Up with a Good Kid's Book,http://www.curledupkids.com/ (March 16, 2007), Jocelyn Pearce, review of Runaway.

KidsReads.com,http://www.kidsreads.com/ (March 16, 2007), Sarah A. Wood, review of Secret Identity; Tamara Penny, review of Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy; Marya Jansen-Gruber, review of Sammy Keyes and the Art of Deception.

TeenLit,http://www.teenlit.com/ (March 16, 2007), review of Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes.

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