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Lock and Key

Angsty novel tackles mature themes in thoughtful way.
Popular with kids

What parents need to know

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

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.

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."

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.

Families can talk 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
Publication date:April 22, 2008
Number of pages:422
Publisher's recommended age(s):12

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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 mean look at Ruby from this book she has been through a lot, yet she finds a second chance and rebuilds her life. Even though you may have concerns so the language, sex scenes, or violence it teaches what some people go through all the time.
What other families should know
Educational value
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, 14 years old Written byexplosivetoaster July 29, 2010


It gives kids a dose of the "real world". Truth be told, most kids, at fourteen, already know about the "bad words" and the explicit content -- they just don't show off their knowledge to their parents.
What other families should know
Too much swearing
Great messages