The Key Collection

An intergenerational and cross-cultural story of love and friendship.

The lines around Ni Ni’s eyes were deeper than before. Her hair was thin and grey. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to move. She didn’t have to move at all. Nobody would make her. We could explain to Auntie Helen that she was not ready. Not yet. Not for a long while.

Xiao Jimmy’s Grandma Ni Ni is his favorite person in all the world. Ni Ni cooks delicious jiao zi, teaches Jimmy Chinese characters, and always has wonderful stories and fascinating objects—like the key collection—to share with him. So when Jimmy learns that Ni Ni must move far away to California, he feels he’s losing his best friend. In time, however, Jimmy discovers there are ways to bridge distance, and to make new friends in the process.

This warm and reassuring novel explores a special relationship that crosses cultures and generations, and holds strong when tested.

Mom came up. Then Dad. They sat on the edge of the bed and tried to talk to me. dad patted my head and said that I should think about what was best for Ni Ni, not what was best for myself. He said we could visit California some day. I wanted him to stop patting me. I wanted him to leave. Mom too. Everyone. Even Ni Ni. Dad said I was grown up now. I didn't listen to the rest of what he said. He called Ni Ni on the phone, but I covered my head with my pillow so I couldn't hear.
Author perspective

When I was growing up, my grandmother lived in an apartment behind our house. I saw her almost everyday. We cooked, baked, and sewed together. Then, when I was about the age of Xiao Jimmy, she moved to Chicago to live near her daughter. I remember feeling sad and deserted. These feelings resurfaced a few years ago when my children's grandmother moved from her St. Louis home to an apartment in California in order to live close to her daughter. I wondered if my son, Nicholas, felt a little bit deserted as I had so many years before. When I sat down to write The Key Collection, my daughter Ann and my niece, Rebekah, were playing with a jar of keys that my brother had collected. They were making key families on the rug. This scene found its way into my story.


This quiet coming-of-age story focuses on Xiao Jimmy’s relationship with Ni Ni, his beloved grandmother. Shy Jimmy enjoys going to Ni Ni’s house; their bond is a model for intergenerational and cultural connections. Ni Ni keeps a jar of old keys for Jimmy to play with, and he enjoys sorting them into “families” peopled with the relatives in China Ni Ni tells him about. Jimmy must adjust when Ni Ni moves to California to be near Auntie Helen, a doctor; overcoming his shyness about visiting his friend Jason’s house is the first step. When Jimmy travels across the country to visit Ni Ni by himself, he learns he may be ready to accompany his grandmother on a trip to China soon. Readers going through similar changes will enjoy Jimmy’s first-person, honest narrative that reveals his love for family and tradition, as well as his desire to grow and mature.

Publisher's Weekly

Emotions run affectingly high in Cheng's (Grandfather Counts) gently delivered, tightly written novel. Xiao Jimmy, the 10-year-old narrator, is devoted to his grandmother, Ni Ni, who lives next door. The frail, elderly woman and her grandson spend treasured time together practicing how to write Chinese characters, making jiao zi (dumplings), discussing Ni Ni's childhood in China and playing with the collection of keys she has amassed through the years, which Jimmy likes to pretend are individual members of their extended family. At night, each peers out the window to see if the other's bedroom light is still on; if it is, they playfully scold each other the next morning. Jimmy is devastated to learn that Ni Ni will be moving from Cincinnati to San Francisco to live with her daughter, a doctor who can take better care of her. Cheng skirts the sentimental as she convincingly describes the boy's painful adjustment and the brave front he displays as he helps Ni Ni pack up her belongings. In the satisfying close, Xiao Jimmy brings the key collection, which Ni Ni has left behind, as a gift when he travels to California to celebrate her 80th birthday. Choi (Nim and the War Effort) contributes spare b&w illustrations; a recipe for jiao zi and some Chinese vocabulary can be found at the end. Ages 8-12. (

Book type: 
Chapter book
Henry Holt
Yangsook Choi
Publication date: 
May 2003
Interest level: 
The New York Times Bookshelf Review, May 2003