The Key to Rondo
by Emily Rodda
It all started when Leo inherited Aunt Bethany’s music box. The music box is beautifully painted with tiny, detailed scenes that Leo loves examining with a magnifying glass. It also comes with rules: never wind the box more than three times; never turn the key while the music is playing; never pick up the box while the music is playing; and never close the lid until the music has stopped. Aunt Bethany left the box to Leo because she knew that Leo is the responsible type who will follow the rules. But when Leo’s obnoxious cousin Mimi Langlander comes to stay, the rules get broken and the unexpected happens.
Mimi and Leo discover that the music box is the gateway to the land of Rondo, and together they travel to Rondo to rescue Mimi’s dog Mutt, who has been kidnapped by the evil Blue Queen. Leo doesn’t even want to be in Rondo. He doesn’t want to risk his life to help Mimi find her annoying dog. But Mimi is determined to rescue Mutt, and Leo can’t just abandon her. But what Leo learns in Rondo convinces him to stay; he realizes that they must do more than just rescue Mutt. Rondo needs their help, and Leo isn’t leaving until they do what needs to be done.
Accomplishing this won’t be easy. Leo and Mimi are in an unfamiliar land, and knowing whom to trust is as difficult as navigating the dangers of Rondo. But the two children find friends and help in unexpected places, and, more importantly, learn to trust and care for each other.
The Key to Rondo uses many standard fantasy elements, but it’s saved from being cliché by the imaginative way that Rodda develops those elements. The land of Rondo is beautifully detailed and peopled with interesting characters who sometimes turn out to be more than they seem. There are many imaginative details that make the book a delight to read, from the cameo appearances by fairy tale characters, to the infestation of “dots,” a pest species in Rondo that look exactly like Aunt Bethany’s gingerbread men. (Although I loved this latter detail, I admit to also being annoyed that it wasn’t more fully developed; I wanted to know how this obviously invasive species was introduced to Rondo, and if they were indeed related to Aunt Bethany’s gingerbread).
Sophisticated readers may find that The Key to Rondo doesn’t have enough depth to hold their interest. However, it’s a gentle fantasy that’s perfect for younger readers, especially those who find many YA, and even middle-grade, fantasies too intense. There’s enough tension and conflict in The Key to Rondo to keep it interesting, without being overly frightening or violent.