Title: Eight Keys
Author: Suzanne La Fleur
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Loss, Family, Identity, Growing Up
Age Range: 4th-6th Grade
Elise has just started middle school, and so far things are not going well. Her best friend Franklin suddenly seems babyish and embarrassing to be around, she's being bullied by a girl at school, and her schoolwork is overwhelming. Things are changing at home, too. Elise has had her aunt and uncle all to herself since she was a small child, coming to live with them after her parents died. Now her cousin Annie is coming to live with them, and bringing her infant daughter. Elise tries to solve her problems on her own, but nothing she does seems to do anything but make things worse. Then, right around her twelfth birthday, she finds the key. Her father, who died of cancer before she was old enough to start school, left her eight keys, each one opening a mysterious door in her uncle's barn. When Elise opens the first door, she discovers a room that is full of her mother, who died the day Elise was born-pictures, mementos, her favorite chair, and her childhood teddy bear. Her father left a note in each room, and as she discovers the keys to the other doors, she learns more about her parents, the uncle who took her in, and finally herself.
This is a beautiful, thoughtfully written book. LaFleur does an excellent job showing how Elise changes from a rather selfish, immature girl into a young woman who understands what it means to be a friend, and who learns to appreciate the people in her life in new ways. The other characters are equally well-written: Franklin, her best friend from early childhood, with his allergies and Star Wars figures; Amanda, the bully; Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh, who know just how to help Elise find her way; and Caroline, the new friend that shows Elise that sometimes things change for the better. And while he may have passed away prior to the start of the book, her father is very much a character. As a parent myself, I was especially moved by the effort he took to ensure that his daughter would learn the important lessons she needed to be happy.
This would be a great book for discussing how characters change from the beginning of the story to the end. It would also be good for looking at character motivation-even the school bully becomes a more sympathetic character when you realize what motivates her to be so mean. It is also an excellent vehicle for talking about what makes a family, or how we handle adversity. Just a wonderful gem of a book!