Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Format: Hardover, 247 pages
Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing... and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity...
The following review is based on a copy I got at the Holly Black signing at ALA Las Vegas last summer.
Why did I wait so long to read this book? A) it's middle grade, which isn't my go-to category B) It's about dolls. Dolls are CREEPY, never mind that I used to play with them. But it's a Holly Black book, so I knew I would read it sooner or later (I've loved her books for the past 10 years).
I'm so glad I decided to read Doll Bones now, and that I had the chance to have it signed last summer. It was, to an extent, like a trip down memory lane. The way Zach, Poppy and Alice played is so similar to the way I grew up playing with my friends. The stories they made up in their heads and somehow 'saw' happening around them... that's just how we played. And I'd forgotten about the rush I used to get from it, and what a wonderful feeling it is. How plastic figures or shells or folded-paper ships can become real to you. I would have SO gone on a quest like them! Actually, we sometimes did. We packed our stuff and went into the forest on the basis of a made-up story (to find a treasure or build a fort or look for fairies). So reading about their experience was magical for me on several different levels.
I really like the way Holly Black constructed this story, the episodes the kids had to go through, how the dynamics between them started to shift, how family life wasn't easy for any of them for various reasons. That grounded the story. The quest each kid was on meshed with their real life problems as well as something else, something maybe-supernatural, something outside of them. I liked the uncertainty - were they just making it all up like they did when they were playing, or was there really something else going on? Was the doll sinister and ill-intentioned, or did she just want to find rest?
I could say 'this is a book about growing up' but that isn't really true. It's a story about beginning to grow up. About being afraid to begin growing up, and changing, and a part of you dying. It's about dreams and quests and how adults often no longer have them - only bitterness. And about not wanting to become that way. It's about the stories we make up and tell about ourselves. That's why they go on a quest - to prove to themselves that they are interesting enough people to have quests, and that they finish them and don't quit halfway through.
Also, can I just say that I loved the inclusion of the library as a place they took shelter in when they were questing? I loved reading about the kids browsing, playing in the stacks, riding those book-wagons down the aisle and fawning over review copies of books they'd been waiting for for months. Also, the sailing episode. That was fantastic.
Overall, Doll Bones was a very refreshing read for me. There was a bit (okay, in some cases a lot) of creepy, which I always like. The characters were all complex and memorable and the relationships between them were interesting, also in the way they changed over time. The adventure plot and its pacing was great and I liked how it was at the same time a magical thing but still something that could happen in the real world, with real world problems (like creepy strangers on the bus or uncrossable rivers or lack of money) getting in the way. More and more, the magic/story/play world and the real world began to merge or at least co-exist, until something jarring happened and the gap became more noticeable again.
I think I have (or maybe had) this prejudice against middle grade books that they tend to be a bit heavy-handed because authors/adults think that kids won't understand what is being hinted at otherwise, and I find that patronizing. Kids are smart and often very good at reading other people. I'm happy to say that this was taken into account here. The writing is nuanced and there are no blatant 'lessons to be learned from this story' parts in Doll Bones. So, if anyone else has MG reads of this kind to recommend, feel free to mention them in the comments.
I don't really know what else to say without being spoilery and taking away from the experience of the story. All I know is that this is one I'm going to re-read every once in a while, to remind myself of things that are important and easily forgotten.
Have any of you read Doll Bones? What was your experience with it? Did you ever play these sorts of games as a kid? And can recommend other (maybe creepy?) MG reads to me?