Book Review: Doll Bones by Holly Black
Doll Bones is a middle-grade book about friendship and growing up, about imagination and adventures — and it’s also a ghost story involving a pretty creepy doll, a mystery, and a quest.
Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends since they were little, but now, at age 12, they’re beginning to realize that childhood doesn’t last forever and that no matter what they want, their lives are all changing. The three friends live in the same neighborhood, go to school together, and for years now have been playing “the game” — a sweet flight of imagination involving their assorted action figures and dolls, in which they take on different characters in an ongoing story of pirates, adventures on the high seas, secret quests and a mysterious queen who rules over all.
But Zach is all too aware that his playtime isn’t so cool anymore, now that he’s in middle school and a star of the basketball team. They’re all growing up, physically and emotionally, and change is in the air. How long can they hold onto their childhood pleasures? At what point do they give into the pressure to put aside their toys and focus on sports, flirting, and other more “age-appropriate” pursuits?
Two events act as catalysts to the main action in Doll Bones: Zach’s father, newly reunited with the family after a three-year separation, grows frustrated with his son’s childish games and tries to force him into manhood by throwing away his action figures. At the same time, Poppy swears that the off-limits old doll in her mother’s china cabinet — dubbed the Great Queen by the three kids — has come to her in a dream, demanding that the children deliver her to her proper resting place or risk being haunted forever.
All three children have doubts and fears to overcome. Zach knows that the time for such things is coming to an end. And yet, Alice and Poppy are his best friends. To keep his friends, should he indulge them one more time and agree to the crazy quest Poppy proposes? Alice, who lives with a strict and over-protective grandmother, has a lot on the line as well, but can’t quite walk away. And is Poppy telling the truth about the haunting? Or is this a last-ditch desperate attempt to keep her friends with her in their world of imagination, rather than allowing them all to move forward into their more grown-up lives as almost-teens?
At heart, Doll Bones is a sweet but sad exploration of the end of childhood. There are choices involved — whether to hang onto the fantasy worlds of their game for as long as possible, or to face the inevitable and say good-bye to make-believe. Zach is fully aware that Poppy’s quest is a defining moment for him, and ultimately, by choosing to go, he’s asserting to himself and to his friends that he wants to be someone who still believes:
But Zach wanted [ghosts] to be real, wanted that desperately.
If they were real, then maybe the world was big enough to have magic in it. And if there was magic– even bad magic, and Zach knew it was more likely that there was bad magic than any good kind — then maybe not everyone had to have a story like his father’s , a story like the kind all the adults he knew told, one about giving up and growing bitter. He might have been embarrassed to wish for magic back home, but there in the woods, it seemed possible. He looked over at the cruel, glassy eyes of the doll, so close that she could have touched his face.
Anything was better than no magic at all.
The trio’s quest — to bring the doll to the grave of the girl she’s connected to and give her a proper burial — involves a road trip, camping, piracy, and breaking and entering. Along the way, they learn truths about themselves and each other, confront their fears, and start to figure out what they will leave behind and what they will keep as they move forward from childhood to adolescence.
Doll Bones works on multiple levels. Children may read it as a straight-forward adventure story, with secret missions, dangers and risks, and a ghostly mystery to unravel. I think adults will more likely be moved by the book’s exploration of the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the questions it poses: Does the end of childhood mean the end of dreaming and imagination? Do we have to give up magic and wonder in order to grow up?
The writing in Doll Bones is lovely and accessible. There’s just enough of eerie winds, strange sensations on the back of one’s neck, and seeing things that may not be there to give a reader a few chills and goose bumps along the way. It’s not terribly scary, but the middle grade target audience may find themselves a bit spooked by certain scenes and images. The reading level seems appropriate for middle school and above, although it might be a bit much for kids on the younger end of the middle-grade-reader spectrum. As for adults… well, I read it and thought it was wonderful. It’s a terrific book to read and and discuss with a kid, but there’s no reason not to read it for your own pleasure too. For an adult, there’s a certain sweet nostalgia for the days when one could indulge freely in imagination and make-believe, for the time before reality becomes more important than play.
In Doll Bones, Holly Black has created memorable, complex characters, a spooky ghost story, and a beautiful ode to childhood and the imagination. It’s sweet, it’s sad, and it’s delicious. Don’t miss it!