Lock and Key

Book review by
Stephanie Dunnewind, Common Sense Media
Lock and Key Book Poster Image
Popular with kids
Angsty novel tackles mature themes in thoughtful way.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 31 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Inspired parents and teachers can use this book to talk about a wide variety of issues, such as abuse, teen sexual relationships, and drinking -- and who they count in their own "family."

Positive Messages

This book explores the theme of family. For a school assignment, Ruby has to interview people about what the word "family" means to them -- even as she is building her own collection of people she can ask for help.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Teens will respond to Ruby's first-person voice as she struggles with all the changes in her life. Ruby applies herself in school, hires a calculus tutor, and gets accepted to college.


Mentions of children/teens slapped, hit, and shoved by their parents; the psychological after-effects are described in detail.


Ruby has sex with her casual boyfriend; it is not explicit but they are not in a committed relationship. She catches her friend having sex with the same guy.


"S--t," "pissed," "bitch," "skank."


A character is CEO of a fictional MySpace-like social-networking company called UMe.com; a few product references (Diet Coke, BMW, Visine).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Ruby buys and smokes pot and drinks alcohol; she drinks excessively (to the point of passing out) to escape from her problems, but is punished for it. Ruby's mom is a smoker and alcoholic who lands in rehab after she is found unconscious in a hotel room.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that teen characters in the book deal with physical and mental abuse by their parents, but it's not sensationalized and the focus is on the psychological after-effects. Teens' coping strategies include drug and alcohol use and running away. The importance of family and friends is strongly emphasized. Inspired parents and teachers can use this book to talk about a wide variety of issues, such as abuse, teen sexual relationships, and drinking -- and who they count in their own "family."

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byvictorianmermaid August 6, 2015

This was one of the books that got me into reading

I read this book a long time ago but it is a good book. It deals with some sensitive issues, like drug and alcohol abuse(by teens and adults), physical abuse, a... Continue reading
Adult Written bymoviemadness April 9, 2008

Not her best...

Lock and Key is not Sarah Dessen's best work. The plot is a bit weak and strange. There is some discussion of drugs and alcohol, but little sex.
Teen, 17 years old Written byTrueblood March 28, 2011
I personally love this book because of what it teaches you. Its about true life for some people, and even though its hard to believe there is a true message. I... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old November 10, 2010


I LOVE THIS BOOK. this was the first book i read by Sarah Dessenand she is my FAVORITE author of ALL TIME!!!!!!! she is awesome. i've read almost all her... Continue reading

What's the story?

When Ruby's single mom takes off a few months before Ruby's 18th birthday, she lives alone in a roach-infested house without running water, hoping to stay under the radar until she's a legal adult. Instead, a social worker sticks her with Cora, the older sister she hasn't seen for 10 years, now a lawyer married to a rich Internet entrepreneur. Despite her new posh surroundings, Ruby always wears the key to her old house on a chain around her neck as a reminder of her difficult yet more familiar old life. She slowly starts to lower her emotional defenses, reconnecting with her sister, making friends with another girl who doesn't fit in at school, and crushing on Nate, the cute, popular boy next door who seems to have a perfect life. It's only when she gets to know Nate that she realizes he might have secrets of his own to unlock.

Is it any good?

Teens will respond to Ruby's first-person voice as she struggles with all the changes in her life, even positive ones. Handed $200 and sent to the mall, Ruby is just anxious with what would seem to be teen heaven. Extensive dialogue exchanges give a sense of immediacy and connection with the characters. The child abuse isn't sensationalized; she focuses on the psychological damage, not the physical violence.

Some of the author's imagery (especially the key metaphor) lacks subtlety; secondary characters seem created to make a point, rather than as real people (Ruby's brother-in-law, while endearing, is simply too perfect); and several plot developments feel contrived. Still, the writing is higher quality than you'll find in many popular young-adult books, with lovely phrases and surprising bits of humor.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about books about abuse. Why might this book be appealing to kids from difficult homes? Do kids from functional families have something to learn from Ruby's story?

  • The author has written several popular books for teens, including Just Listen. What is appealing about her books? Why do they resonate so well with teens?

Book details

  • Author: Sarah Dessen
  • Genre: Coming of Age
  • Book type: Fiction
  • Publisher: Viking
  • Publication date: April 22, 2008
  • Publisher's recommended age(s): 12
  • Number of pages: 422
  • Last updated: June 19, 2019

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age stories

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate