Book Review by Heidi Morein
The Three Golden Keys (1994, 2001), by author-illustrator Peter Sis, offers a magical, dreamlike journey, by hot-air balloon, to his childhood home in Prague, in the Czech Republic.
Text and illustrations construct a classic fairy tale, with maps, magic, imaginative creatures, and a cat, leading the way into and through the city: and thus the narrative fulfills the genre with a quest, and a clever guide. Prague emerges as a place of personal memory come to life. Indeed, the book provides a strong example of setting becoming a character in and of itself.
The traveler-main character depicted takes the place of Peter Sis, and then the child-reader, and is a small, genderless figure – drawn anonymously, to pull in all children as readers or listeners to this tale. The city of Prague comes to life darkly, gradually, with winking, imaginative creatures, labyrinthine old streets and low rooftops, a place which holds and hides its secrets but offers up their revelation with the securing of three golden keys.
The book is not a long one, but it is oversized, at just under 10 by 12 inches. The illustrations are complex, and dominate the small explorer, much as the city does; they work to enhance and deepen the text, inviting interaction between teacher and child, reader and listener, or among readers. The images prolong the experience of the book, inviting more exploration, perhaps piquing an interest in travel, in other countries and cultures.
I asked my 17 year old son, who is a master of the deep read, to read and assess the book.
“I liked the imagery, it was very dreamlike and surreal … unsettling, dark and lonely at the same time that it was interesting [engaging] … there is a sense of loss. It has a pleasant tone. It’s ambiguous. It’s both happy and sad at the same time.” When I asked him to recommend an age, he thought a seven or eight year old might begin to appreciate it.
Discussion emerging from reading this book would be quite rich: Have you ever dreamt about being or going to a place you’ve never seen before? What it is like to explore? What would you want to do first? Would you want a map? Would you want a guide? What things might we want to know or understand about a far-away place?
The preface to the story is a letter to Sis’ baby daughter; it is set out in a hand-written font, like a “real” letter. It expresses a heartfelt wish that she come to know the city where he grew up. He knows that traveling there is unlikely, because it is far away, and she is little, but he longs to take her there.
This preface and this wish also make for good discussion, and for projects for the children in any class and at many different ages. Where did your parents or grandparents come from? Would you like to go there, or take us there? What would we see? What would you like to know about it, or to see there?
At a time when the country is brimming with discourse on immigration, of strangers in a strange land, The Three Golden Keys presents a compelling addition to the library of any elementary school classroom – preferably set out where children may be captivated by its fascinating, oversized pages of elaborate drawings, its fanciful creatures, maps and cityscapes. Many classrooms will have children from different lands and different cultures, whose family journeys may be stories they know or want to discover, and bring in to their classmates. Their own journeys of cultural discovery and sharing these experiences may be similarly opened up by finding their own keys and guides, in family members, in pictures and photographs, indigenous fairy tales or legendary figures. The classroom is a great place to explore and share such vivid stories of other places and other times.