Children's literature, like all other types, is full of conventions. Successful books can use those foundational conventions with enough originality to make the story seem at once comfortable and exciting. Emily Rodda has achieved such a balance in THE KEY TO RONDO. This fantasy tale employs the familiar "quest by unlikely heroes who have stumbled into another world" in a fresh and compelling package.
When Leo inherits an antique music box from his kind but dull great-aunt Bethany, he is flattered to be responsible for an object that has been in his family for generations. Little does he know that the beautifully painted box will be the source of an adventure that will bring him closer to understanding all the Langlander family stories that Bethany loved to share. Leo planned to respect the rules for the music box that had been handed down: don't wind it more than three times, don't turn the key or pick up the box while the music is still playing, and don't close the lid until the music has stopped. But when his annoying and defiant cousin Mimi comes to stay with him and his parents, she breaks the rules right away, thus setting in motion a perilous and exciting adventure that tests their loyalty, reveals much about the Langlander clan, and challenges Leo and Mimi to find strength and confidence in their true selves.
When Mimi winds the music box an additional turn, it brings to life the Blue Queen, one of the figures painted on the box. She snatches Mimi's dog Mutt and heads back to Rondo, the world painted on the box's sides. Despite Leo's warnings, Mimi is determined to follow the queen into Rondo to rescue Mutt. And against his better judgment, Leo goes with her. They find themselves in the street scene painted on one side of the box, but things are different from what they remember: there has been an earthquake in Rondo and much disorder.
A shady character calling himself Tom offers to help the two youngsters find their way to the Blue Queen's castle, but he is scared away by the police. Now Leo and Mimi are on their own and distrustful of everyone they meet. Do Conkers and his talking duck Freda really want to help them? What about the strange-looking Tye, who has the body of a woman and the face of a tiger? What are they to make of the tales of Jim and Polly, who tell them all about the Dark Times and a hero named Hal who thwarted the queen?
As they move closer and closer to the queen's castle, Leo and Mimi must work together to hatch a plan that will free the dog and get them home safely. They team up with a talking pig named Bertha and decide to confront the queen face to face. Along the way they learn about Rondo and begin to comprehend how Rondo and the Langlander family are connected.
THE KEY TO RONDO is great fun to read. Leo and Mimi make a fantastic pair, especially as they come to know each other better and work together to balance their strengths and weaknesses. The supporting characters are sympathetic, and the bad guys are just bad enough without being unbelievable. Young readers will enjoy the twists, turns and surprises; the writing is fresh and the adventure thrilling. Rodda's contribution to this otherworldly quest is a worthwhile one, and she definitely has ended the book with room for sequels. There are still many mysteries of Rondo to be revealed!
--- Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman