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WENDELIN VAN DRAANEN was a teacher for many years before turning to writing full-time. Her first Sammy Keyes mystery, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award. She lives in Central California with her husband and two sons.
Dot DeVries is Dutch.
Well, at least that’s her heritage. She was born here, but her parents are from Holland and they speak with an accent and say ja a lot.
And even though Dot acts like an everyday ordinary eighth grader most of the time, when the calendar flips over to December, the Dutch girl in her cannot be contained.
“Here!” she said before school on Tuesday, forcing a small chunk of what looked like black rubber into my hand. “Sinterklaas came last night!”
According to Dot, Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. He’s a big man with a long white beard and he brings gifts to good boys and girls, only instead of using eight reindeer and a sleigh, he rides just one big white horse, and instead of putting lots of presents all at once under a tree, Sinterklaas gives a few little presents spread out over five days, and he puts them in your shoes.
Dot gets way into Sinterklaas, but this was the first time she’d shared anything from him with me. “What is it?” I asked her, staring down at the rubbery black nugget.
“Dutch candy!” she says, popping one in her mouth. “It’s delicious!”
“Really?” I ask, ’cause, honestly, it looks like someone diced up an old tire.
“Really!” she squeaks. “Yesterday was the first of December, so before bed we put our shoes by the fireplace, left apples for the horse, and sang the Sinterklaas song, and this morning we had treats in our shoes!”
I still wasn’t convinced, but she was so excited, I figured, What the heck? and put it in my mouth.
It was rubbery.
“You don’t like it?” Dot says, ’cause bleeeechhhh is written all over my face.
I look around for someplace to spit it out.
“Give it a second!” she says. “Really! It’s delicious!”
But I can’t take it another second. It doesn’t just taste like something that’s been inside a shoe, it tastes like a shoe! I hock it like a big black nasty loogie into a bush and wipe my lips on my sweatshirt sleeve. “You seriously like that?”
“Your teeth are black,” she says, zooming in a little on my mouth.
“So are yours!” I tell her, inspecting hers, and we both hurry to the water fountain to swish our mouths out before class.
Then on Wednesday she comes up to me looking kinda sheepish and says, “Mom thinks you’ll like these better.”
I arch an eyebrow at the little paper-wrapped cube in her hand. “What is it?”
“Hopjes,” she says. “It’s coffee candy.”
“Black coffee?” I ask, picturing my teeth turning all icky again.
“No, no. It’s sweet. It’s really delicious.”
I just stare at it, ’cause coffee that’s been in a shoe sounds about as appetizing as tar. “You said that last time.”
But she forces it on me, and when I unwrap it, what I see does look edible.
Like a piece of real candy.
So I pop it in my mouth, and after a few seconds Dot says, “Well?”
My eyes bug out a little. “This is the best candy I’ve ever tasted!”
“Told you!” she squealed.
Then on Thursday she brought a package of what looked like little waffle cookies. “They’re stroopwafels!” she said. “My favorite!”
They were also delicious, and since our friends Marissa and Billy and Holly were all there wanting to try them, they went fast.
“So, wait,” Billy says. “You sing a song at night and in the morning you get cookies in your shoes? Do you have to be Dutch to do this?”
Dot grins at him. “You have to be good!”
He laughs. “Well, that eliminates me.”
“And if you’re not good, you don’t just get a lump of coal. You get put in a sack and taken away by Sinterklaas’s helpers!”
“Seriously? They kidnap you?”
“Uh-huh!” she says, and her eyes are all sparkly. “But if you are good, then on the last day, Sinterklaas comes and throws pepernoten through the roof and leaves presents at your door.”
“Pepernoten?” Holly asks. “What are those?”
“Little spice cookies!”
I squint at her. “He throws cookies through the roof? How?”
Dot grins. “He just does! He’s Sinterklaas! You look up and see them falling from the ceiling.”
“Don’t they break?” Holly asks. “Don’t you get crumbs everywhere?”
Dot shakes her head. “They’re little, and they’re hard. They crash through the roof and scatter all over the house and the children race to pick them up. They’re delicious!”
Marissa squints at her. “You eat them off the floor?”
Dot shrugs and smiles. Like, Yeah, that’s what we do. Then she adds, “We keep it going because Anneke and Beppie are still little, and I’m glad--it’s the most fun holiday ever!”
“Who’s Anneke and Beppie?” Billy asks.
“A double dose of mischief,” I tell him, because last New Year’s the rest of us spent the night at Dot’s house and they were like a couple of nosy mice, spying on us everywhere we went.
“Wish I could be a fly on your wall,” Holly says. “That’s got to be wild.”
“It is! Especially because Troy and Stan go into combat mode and try to raid my stash of pepernoten.”
“Let me guess,” Billy says. “Brothers?”
Dot nods. “They think they’re so smart, but this year I’ve got a satchel ready and they’re going to have to tackle me for them.”
Marissa shakes her head. “So little hard cookies come through the roof, you guys collect them--”
“We dive for them!”
“--and put them in satchels so your brothers can’t steal them--”
“Well, I steal theirs, too. And they steal them back!”
“--and after they’ve crashed through the roof, scattered all over the floor, and endured an epic battle between you and your brothers, you eat them.”
Dot grins from ear to ear. “It’s tradition!”
Billy laughs. “Can I get a skybox seat?”
The rest of us laugh, “Me too!” and then the warning bell rings so we all scatter off to class.
Then on Friday Dot comes racing up to us before school, all out of breath and rosy-cheeked. “Guess what?” she pants, but this time she doesn’t have Dutch cookies or candy or little tabs of tar.
She’s got an invitation.
“Mom says you guys can come over for Sinterklaas tonight!”
We all look at each other, and finally Billy says, “Really?”
Dot nods like crazy. “No skybox seats, though. You have to get in and be part of it. Wear heavy socks and come ready for battle.” She gives a little grin and shrugs. “At least that’s what Troy and Stan say. Mom says as long as you don’t blow it for Anneke and Beppie, you’re welcome to join us.”
“Well, I’m in!” I cry, and Billy goes, “Me too!” and right away Holly and Marissa say they’ll go, too.
“Invite Casey if you want,” Dot says, looking at me. “The more boys we have to go up against Troy and Stan, the better.”
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