Young Adult Education

Young Adult Education: ‘Lock and Key' by Sarah Dessen

Asking me to name my favorite Sarah Dessen book is like asking me to pick my favorite flavor of ice cream or choose my favorite Prince song. It just can’t be done. All Sarah Dessen’s books feature engaging heroines, total dreamboats and plot lines that make me stay up way too late reading. As much as I’d like to talk to you about them all, and then moderate a debate about which love interest is the best, I’ll just focus on Lock and Key for now.

Sarah Dessen stands out because she manages to be a clever, interesting writer when dealing with the most common YA book subjects: boys and families. Don’t get me wrong, I love YA books that deal with genre-bending subjects like time travel and post-apocalyptic societies. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to read a book that takes place in modern times, doesn’t involve any mythical creatures and will probably feature a kiss at the end. That’s where Sarah Dessen comes in.

This isn’t to say that Lock and Key‘s heroine, Ruby Cooper, has an easy life–far from it. She lives in a yellow farmhouse with her alcoholic, sometimes abusive mother. That is, until her mother takes off, leaving Ruby to deal with the rent, the repairs, and the bills. She handles all this as any 17 year old would (which is to say, not well), and soon children’s services is involved. Before she even has time to put together a bag of her possessions, she’s whisked away to live with her sister, Cora.

The problem is that, as Ruby sees it, Cora abandoned the family years ago when she went off to college and stopped visiting, calling, or writing. By now, Cora’s living a life that Ruby knows nothing about and doesn’t understand at all. She has a high powered job, a beautiful house, and a loving husband. “My sister had, in fact, finally gotten everything she wanted,” Ruby says soon after moving in. “Not just the things that made up the life she’d no doubt dreamed of—the house, the job, the security—all those nights in our shared room, but someone to share it with. To come home and have dinner with, to leave a note for. Such simple, stupid things, and yet in the end, they were the true proof of a real life.” This is the real life Ruby has no idea how to live. For her, this much stability, money, and just plain normalcy are too much to handle. Not to mention she now has to attend a ritzy private school where she’s afraid she won’t fit in at all.

So that about covers the family drama. What about the dudes? A lot of YA heroines are good girls who fall for burnout rebels who can shake up their lives, but Ruby does just the opposite. She finds herself starting to like neighbor Nate Cross against her will. He’s everything she doesn’t like: preppy, blonde, student body vice president, homecoming king, one of the most popular guys in school, and generally a perfect All-American boy. He’s hell-bent on becoming Ruby’s friend, but Ruby’s used to keeping her friends at arm’s length. How is Ruby supposed to care about someone when her whole life has been about hiding from people and pushing them away? How’s she supposed to accept a normal life when she’s never really had one? And, most importantly, how is she supposed to let her sister back into her life after everything they’ve been through?

Ruby learns that everyone has their own stories and secrets. No one is what they seem on the surface: not Nate, not her sister, not her classmates, not even her mother. You might see the end of the book coming—as the old writing adage goes, don’t put a cute boy on stage in the first act if you don’t intend to make out with him in the second (that’s what Chekhov said, right?). But it’s the way Sarah Dessen gets to that destination—with humor, realism, and truthful emotion—that makes her books so unique.

Some Highlights:

– Sarah Dessen’s books always make me ridiculously hungry. She has a knack for mentioning delicious, usually unhealthy foods often enough to make me crave them. With What Happened To Goodbye, it was fried pickles, and with Along For the Ride, it was onion rings. In this book, the food descriptions are mercifully shorter, although I did end up spending a lot of time thinking about lasagna.

– One of the most interesting things about Sarah Dessen’s books is that they connect with each other. The same towns, schools, and restaurants are mentioned over and over again, so if you read several of her books, it starts to feel like you’re part of the world she’s created. Sometimes a character from one book will even show up or be mentioned in another one.

– Although this book does deal with some upsetting family drama, there are lots of side characters that function as comic relief. For example, Ruby has to carpool with Gervais, a farting, burping prodigy who shouts impolite observations from the back seat.

– The title, Lock and Key, comes from the key Ruby wears around her neck. It goes to the yellow house where she lived with her mother, and it comes to symbolize a lot of things about Ruby’s life. As Ruby herself says, “It’s a lot easier to be lost than found. It’s the reason we’re always searching, and rarely discovered—so many locks, not enough keys.”

Are there any young adult books you’d like to see in Young Adult Education? Let us know in the comments!

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