Doll Bones by Holly Black
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: It’s a special day when I read a book that seems to have been written just for me. Me when I was a kid. Doll Bones (McElderry 2013) is one of those books. Holly, were you watching me as a kid? Probably not, so get to the point, Cindy. Doll Bones is one of those rare, perfect coming of age stories for kids on the cusp of adolescence. It’s scary and they don’t always want to take that step into the…beyond. We have so many books that rush kids into that world but not every kid is ready for romance and to leave the joys and safety of childhood behind. Nor are many ready to give up pastimes like “doll play” that overnight are deemed by peers or parents as too childish. Holly Black peers into this tenuous world and gives us the vehicle in which to navigate it wrapped up in a creepy haunted doll story and a real quest by three 12-year-old adventurers. Great stuff.
Zach, Poppy, and Alice play with dolls. Bear with me. They don’t play house. They are middle schoolers with active imaginations and they have a long running fantasy story peopled with old Barbies, action figures, mermaid dolls, and re-purposed G.I. Joe figures. There are pirates, thieves and hero warriors and villains. The asphalt road is the Blackest Sea and ships are made of flat paper cutouts. They pass notes at school with questions to be answered about characters’ histories and motives. The three meet after school and continue the story whenever they can. But they are 12. Aren’t they getting too old for dolls?
When Zach’s father takes it upon himself to dispose of Zach’s “dolls,” Zach is inconsolable. He feels a deep loss and he keeps the secret from Poppy and Alice, and simply tells them he doesn’t want to play anymore. He’s too old. The girls don’t understand. They don’t want to accept it but he will not say more or answer their questions. In a desperate act, Poppy opens her mother’s curio cabinet and frees the Great Queen, a bone china doll that they have imagined to rule over their imaginary kingdom. She calls an emergency meeting of the three friends and tells them she dreamed that the doll needs her help. Her china is made from the bones of a real girl, the rest of her ashes contained within (she takes off the head to show them the bag of ashes) and that the girl’s ghost cannot rest until they take her to her empty grave and bury her.
What follows is a three day quest by bus, boat, feet, and bicycle to do just that and to tell you more would be wrong. What I can tell you is that this book made me feel a kinship with Zach on page 238 as he says:
It made him feel, for a moment, like maybe no stories were lies. Not Tinshoe Jones’s stories about aliens. Not Dad’s stories about things getting better or things getting worse. Clearly, not Poppy’s stories about the Queen. Maybe all stories were true ones.
I have half a dozen other sticky notes in this book with passages I’d like to share, but I have to leave things for Lynn and I want to leave gems for you to discover on your own. I can’t wait to book talk this to my 6th graders in the fall, but I need to order more copies pronto. And now I know why my mother kept her creepy bone china doll in a box in a high cupboard. I never wanted to play with that doll anyway, it scared me.
Lynn: Like Cindy, I found this book completely engaging and once started, I raced through it. There is so much here – a creepy ghost story, an adventure, a quest, a bit of a mystery. But as she also says, the heart of this book is that overwhelming elephant that looms in the lives of eleven and twelve-year-olds – leaving childhood and all the changes that brings. For some kids that can’t come soon enough but for many, there is much to regret. I love how some of those issues are handled here, discussed in the context of what was important to these three friends. Here is Poppy:
It’s not fair. We had a story, and our story was important. And I hate that both of you can just walk away and take part of my story with you and not even care. I hate that you can do what you’re supposed to and I can’t. I hate that you’re going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I’m next.
It’s the story but of course it is so much more and I ached for Poppy. I also admire that Black makes Zach more of a focus here than the two girls – not the easy choice. I think Zach is wonderfully portrayed: gangly, unused to the new length of his arms and legs, oblivious to his effect on the girls and bemused by the changes in the way people treat and react to him – Zach is a sweet, smart thoughtful boy who also misses the story but who also is looking ahead with more interest than fear and whose motivations for the journey are quite different from the girls’.
What fun to booktalk this one in the fall! Anticipate waiting lists of kids eager to get their hands on this one and while they may think they are simply getting a creepy story, young readers are in for a wonderfully rich reading experience.