Just in time for Halloween… A spooky edition of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf!
DOLL BONES by Holly Black
Published by Doubleday Children’s, May 2013
Winner of a 2014 Newberry Honor Medal
suggested age range: 10 – 14
Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever. And for almost as long, they’ve been playing one continuous, ever-changing game of pirates and thieves, mermaids and warriors. Ruling over all is the Great Queen, a bone-china doll cursing those who displease her.
But they are in middle school now. Zach’s father pushes him to give up make-believe, and Zach quits the game. Their friendship might be over, until Poppy declares she’s been having dreams about the Queen—and the ghost of a girl who will not rest until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave.
Zach and Alice and Poppy set off on one last adventure to lay the Queen’s ghost to rest. But nothing goes according to plan, and as their adventure turns into an epic journey, creepy things begin to happen. Is the doll just a doll or something more sinister? And if there really is a ghost, will it let them go now that it has them in its clutches?
-courtesy of Holly Black’s website
IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES: Friendship, growing up, loyalty. Includes the idea of the death of a child in the past, but this is not the main focus.
So what did we think?
Meagan: I was almost too scared to read this based on its description. I’m glad you talked me into it, but it WAS scary to me–enough so that I avoided reading it at night. I don’t read enough ghost story type books to know if this is typical, but I liked how the story always seemed to have two possible explanations for anything ghostly. So it was easy to read along thinking, well….maybe Poppy is making this up. Or, maybe it was a raccoon who trashed the campsite, etc.
Eva: That’s funny because although I enjoyed Doll Bones, I was hoping for it to be MORE of a straight-forward ghost story. For a lot of the book it seemed like Poppy was perhaps just making it up, and that made me a little disappointed and made the stakes for getting The Queen to the graveyard not as high. I kept thinking, “this better be real or I’m going to be disappointed!” Of course, I was a kid who LOVED reading ghost stories in upper elementary and middle school.
Meagan: One thing I loved was the specificity of the setting. It’s set in modern-day, post-industrial towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and having been in that part of the country, it feels spot on. The buildings, the landscapes, everything feels just right and not generic.
I also saw that Doll Bones was a winner of something called The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. According to the award website, It honors books for beginning readers to age thirteen, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia. I will definitely look at their nominees and award recipients for reading recommendations in the future!
Eva: I’m not surprised this book has won awards! I thought this was well-written with good pacing. And the mix of ghost story and real-life adventure was unique and interesting. I liked the characters — although Zach annoyed me sometimes — and I liked the adventure overall. Black did a great job of blending magical aspects with real life adventure. Like you said — the very specific setting was a great benefit.
But honestly, I think my favorite thing was the creepy doll and the ghost story surrounding her. I love that she lived in a locked glass cabinet in Poppy’s living room and that the three kids called her The Queen:
The Queen was a bone china doll of a child with straw-gold curls and paper-white skin. Her eyes were closed, lashes a flaxen fringe against her cheek. She wore a long gown, the thin fabric dotted with something black that might be mold.
And I loved the stories the kids made up about the doll:
According to the legend they’d created, the Queen ruled over everything from her beautiful glass tower. She had the power to put her mark on anyone who disobeyed her commands. When that happened, nothing would go right for them until they regained her favor.
Meagan: I also want to mention that the themes are superbly developed. They aren’t overly obvious, but once I started thinking about what they were, I found they were woven in in so many different ways.
Reality versus Fantasy is an obvious one. Is the ghost of Eleanor real? Is she really doing these things? It’s also present in the way the three kids play: a pretend quest (like with the action figures at the beginning or a real quest that they go on later). It’s also in their struggle with middle school identities. Are their childhood selves their real selves? Are their newer interests in sports and dating pretend identities that they are putting on in order to fit in, or are these part of their real selves too?
Another theme is Hanging On versus Letting Go. There’s the whole idea that a ghost is hanging onto life in this world versus passing on to the afterlife. There’s also the story of how Eleanor’s father couldn’t let her go and hung onto her in a creepy way. And then there’s the challenge Zach, Poppy, and Alice face: can (or should) they hang onto childhood and their friendship as it was? Will hanging onto it actually destroy it? Should they let go and be okay with becoming teens and introducing a new dynamic to their friendship?
Eva: You’re absolutely right about the themes. This is much more than a straight-forward ghost story because Black did such a great job of weaving in coming-of-age themes.
I have to say, though, one thing that bothered me was Zach’s motivation. At the beginning of the book, his dad throws away his action figures, so Zach tells Alice and Poppy that he can’t play the make-believe game anymore. I kept thinking, “couldn’t he just get some more action figures?” and “Does he even need the action figures — aren’t they just playing make-believe anyway?”
I understand that he was upset with his dad and that it sent a message to Zach that he needed to grow up, but I think his motivation for quitting the game would have been stronger if his father forbade him from playing with the girls, OR, even better, if some of his teammates found out about the game and he was embarrassed. As it was, I didn’t totally buy the fact that a) his father throwing away the toys makes him decide to quit the game and b) that even after days go by he still feels like he can’t tell his best friends what happened.
Meagan: Really? That didn’t bother me at all! I was impressed with what believable interiority and emotional reactions we get from Zach. His response to his fight with his father (hiding it from his friends for fear of crying about it) feels tragic, but also so real. Holly Black is a female writer writing a male protagonist very well. It can be done!
My one writing criticism is that I was a little surprised by some of the “telling” descriptions of the characters. There’s a fair amount of “Poppy is fierce” and “Alice is quiet” rather than just showing us that through choices and action. It didn’t wreck it for me though.
Eva: Yeah, although there were a few things I would have changed, I really enjoyed the book overall. I thought she did a GREAT job of writing an appropriately scary/creepy story for middle grade readers. When the kids find the little bag of ash inside the doll — oh! So creepy and awesome! But also, the story was never too creepy and scary for middle grade readers. I also liked the historical explanation at the end. It seemed very plausible. Like I said, I really enjoyed the ghost story aspect of it, and I think kids will, too.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
Meagan: I don’t know! If I had accidentally started reading this book or one like it when I was a kid, I would have put it down in a hurry! I can tolerate (though not totally embrace) the ghostly stuff as an adult, but as a kid, it would have given me nightmares. So…I can’t think of any titles for comparison.
Eva: Meanwhile, I LOVED ghost stories as a kid, especially anything by Mary Downing Hahn (Wait Till Helen Comes, The Doll in the Garden). But I was most reminded of The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatly Snyder, which is also a Newberry-Honor-winning novel (1967) about a group of kids playing a make-believe game. I remember reading this book multiple times as a kid, and each time I expected it to be something different than what it was. I thought it would involve real magic, but it was just kids playing make-believe (and there was a real-life menace). So I came to Doll Bones with that same sense of wanting there to be a real supernatural element, but not sure whether or not I was going to get it.
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- Adventure story
- Setting and tone
- Well-developed themes
- Close 3rd person narration
- Appropriately scary story for middle-grade
Meagan: For me as a writer, this book is an inspiration to develop multi-thread themes! A good theme isn’t too obvious (not stated outright) and shows up again and again in the main plot, the subplots, and in different ways for different characters.
Eva: This is a great books for kids who like ghost stories and/or action/adventure.