Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
Release Date: August 2011
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise's parents died when she was too young to remember them. There's always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.
When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the barn
I originally picked up Eight Keys at ALA Annual because I thought it might be a good contender for my Joliet Reads Committee. (A one-book a month program done through the school. I work with the 6th, 7th, & 8th grade committee.) Of course, time slipped away too fast during those busy summer months and it wasn’t until the finished version hit our new bookshelves that I finally picked a copy up.
While not strong enough to recommend for the committee, I did enjoy the book. Or so I thought. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still like the book overall, but the more I think about Eight Keys the more little things start to bug me such as issues or characters that were thrown in but not dealt with or developed thoroughly. It would have been better for LaFluer to focus on one thing, say the eight keys or the bullying/entering a new school than trying to mash it all together.
Let me back up a little and focus on what I did love and that was the eight door/keys. I’ll admit the messages and items her father left in the rooms brought some tears to my eyes. The sense of family, love, and knowing yourself was written across every room. Since her father died when she was only three we never met him, but it’s easy to see how much he cared for his daughter by what he left as a legacy in those rooms. Books, photos, mementos…small things that told about the lives of her parents, the people around her, and the short time they had together. Honestly, I wish LaFluer had spent the entire books, instead of just half of it, on this. Everyone spoke how her father loved puzzles/riddles, but what he left behind wasn’t much of either. The keys were given up too easy and within a month, maybe two, all the doors had been opened. I think if it had been made into a scavenger hunt with clue leading to the next key the journey could have been dragged out more and perhaps become even more meaningful.
The other thing I did like was how LaFluer managed to capture those insecurities of an eleven year old entering a new school and being bullied. In Elise’s case the bullying starts when she starts school with scabs all down her legs from a fall during a make-believe game. While normally I would say tweens shed off their make-believe games sooner than sixth grade, there is something about being rural areas that allows kids to be kids longer than those in urban areas. I’m not saying that’s the case for all or even most, but I have witnessed a sense of innocence that lasts longer where the outdoors and imagination run free. Perhaps it is not the norm nowadays, but I still think there are quite a few tweens who manage to hang onto their innocence/make-believe spirit longer then others.
However, the one issue that has been under my skin the most is how the bullying situation was handled. There were no consequences for Amanda. There was one moment of payback that landed Franklin, of all people, in trouble and a moment where Elise finally stands up to her, but that is where it ends. I do understand that most bullies never see consequences, but when Elise tries to bring it up it is merely brushed aside time and time again. The only ones who seem to care are her aunt and uncle, but even they let Elise handle and never get involved. Also, LaFluer on several occasions tries to make the reader feel sorry for Amanda, but never gives us any real meat to it. She hints that something has happened to make Amanda such a bully, but nothing is ever revealed. We’re told she wasn’t always like this, that she can be fun outside of school, and that her brother/his friends are mean to her, but it never goes beyond that. The closest explanation is that she wanted people to believe she was “tough”, but again why? I’m not sure I would have cared normally, but since LaFluer kept hinting that there was more beneath the bully I wanted to see it.
The underdeveloped bully issue goes hand-in-hand with some of the character development as well. For the most part, LaFluer fleshes out her characters enough to make them feel real. I may not know too much about Aunt Bessie, Uncle Hugh, or even Caroline, but there was enough depth to them to make me happy. The same cannot be said about Annie (Aunt Bessie’s sister) and baby Ava. They moved in near the beginning of the book, but mainly appeared randomly throughout the book. Their appearance held little significance beyond making Elise jealous or having a person to ask random questions to. It felt like LaFluer was also trying to use Ava to show how Elise was maturing/becoming more thoughtful, but it fell flat. There were many other ways that the changes in Elise could have been shown beyond adding in fluff characters.
After all is said and done, Eight Keys is still a cute, fast read. The writing is solid and I’ll be looking into LaFluer’s past and future books. While the characters are in middle school, it does read a little young. It would be a great recommendation for those tween girls who aren’t quite ready for YA but are turning their nose at Juv titles. While not a happy-go-lucky story, girls who are transitioning into new schools/lives will relate to Elise and what she is going through. So, while not one of my favorites, it is one I am happy to have in my library and hand off to readers.
Have you read Eight Keys? If so, let me know what you think!