Review: Doll Bones by Holly Black

Doll Bones by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013. Currently Available.

Genre: Horror

Doll BonesFace Value: It’s hard to imagine what else could make this cover better – it’s creepy (just look at those doll eyes staring out at you), illustrated, as nearly all my favorite middle grade covers are, and hints at the plot and the greater themes within the book.

Does it Break the Slate? With three outstanding characters who are deeply Slatebreaking at their core, it would be hard not to think so. But even more than that, this is a book about growing up, and how we have to change and not change who we are as we move into the changes that come with becoming a teenager. The transition out of pretend play is a hard one for so many kids, and the way that these three navigate growing up is absolutely Slatebreaker-worthy.

Who would we give it to? This is the perfect book to hand off to fans of Goosebumps who want to be scared just the right amount but might be ready to be pushed into something a bit more literary. Doll Bones is creepy and thoughtful in all the best ways. But even more so, this is a great book for pretenders – for kids who are growing up, but aren’t quite ready to let go of their imaginative games.

Review: Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends forever. Their friendship is built around “The Game” – a pretend play game in which they create stories about pirates, thieves, mermaids, heroes and villains, under the leadership of “The Great Queen” (an antique doll owned by Poppy’s mom) They use dolls and action figures to build the world, but it’s more than that – they are creating an entire universe of stories that they share ownership of.

As they have gotten older, they know that playing pretend isn’t something other kids are doing, and it isn’t as socially acceptable as it used to be. But they still love the game, and invest deeply in it, until Zach’s dad throws away his action figures so that he can’t play anymore. Embarrassed, Zach lies and says he doesn’t want to play anymore. Desperate to keep the game going, Poppy takes the Queen out of her glass case – and awakens a ghost. The three children find themselves on one last adventure to discover the truth and put the ghost’s spirit to rest.

I loved the way The Game was written about. Like our protagonists, I played pretend with dolls longer than was socially acceptable. And like Poppy, Alice and Zach, it was always more about storytelling than it was about the toys. And now, obviously, I make my living creating theatre, so it worked out well for me. But the brilliant thing that Holly Black does here is creating this game in a way that gives us a real understanding of how deeply involved the storytelling element of it is, and how easy it is to get swept up in the Game and its world. Take this for example:

“You think the Duke’s guards will be waiting for us in Silverfall?” Alice made Lady Jaye ask.

“He might catch us,” said Zach, grinning at her. “But he’ll never hold us. Nothing will. We’re on a mission for the Great Queen and we won’t be stopped.” He hadn’t expected to say those words until they came out of his mouth but they felt right. They felt like William’s true thoughts.

That was why Zach loved playing: Those moments where it seemed like he was accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything. It was something he never wanted to give up. He’d rather go on playing like this forever, no matter how old they got, although he didn’t see how that was possible. It was already hard sometimes.”

In a passage like this one, Black perfectly captures that feeling of being swept up in make believe, of the feeling of being both a participant in the story and a creator of it, which is such a huge part of the allure of pretend play anyway. And she captures the fact that it isn’t any less magical, but it does get harder as you get older and people’s expectations change.

Because of our gendered cultural expectations, it’s harder for Zach to keep playing the game than it is for the girls. As we saw before, the magic of pretending is totally worth it to him, but it’s still hard, dealing with people’s expectations, especially his dad’s. As he explains,

“His father loved that Zach was on the basketball team. Sometimes that seemed as if it was the only thing about Zach he liked. He didn’t like that Zach played with girls after school instead of shooting hoops with the older kids a couple of blocks over. He didn’t like that Zach daydreamed all the time. And sometimes it seemed to Zach that his father didn’t even like that Zach had gotten really good at basketball, since it meant that he couldn’t scold Zach about how all that other stuff was getting in the way of his performance on the court.”

It’s complicated stuff, and Black does a great job of creating a nuanced portrait of the gendered expectations on Zach, especially as he grows up.

We get the story from Zach’s point of view, but Alice and Poppy are wonderful characters too. Alice is smart and dedicated, and willing to take huge risks for the people she cares about. I love the detail of her creating a new character (the loud and wild thief, Lady Jaye) as the game went on. We got little nuances into her world, and I’d love to read a second book about these characters from her point of view. And I had a ton of empathy for Poppy, even though she could be bratty and bossy, and even mean at  times, we understand that it is coming from a place of fear. She knows that Zach and Alice are moving forward in ways that she’s not quite ready for, and she’s terrified of losing the magic of pretending. She isn’t ready for the next step of growing up. I was super annoyed with her character for a big part of the middle of the book, and then there was this passage, which almost completely restored my sympathy:

“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 do 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.”

How can you not be sympathetic to that? Who can’t relate to that feeling of being left behind, and the legitimate trauma that accompanies it, even if you know it’s exactly what is “supposed” to happen. There’s something inherently Slatebreaking about figuring out who you’re going to be in the next stage of your life, and navigating how you get to that stage and what you have to leave behind. These characters handle it with honesty and resilience.

And aside from all that outstanding character development, if you’re looking for plot-driven ghost story, that’s here too. Black isn’t afraid to put her characters in terrifying, dangerous situations, and I turned pages very quickly. The ultimate resolution of the mystery felt like it came a little too quickly, but it was still a scary, satisfying ghostly conclusion.

I rarely say this because I love a good standalone book, but I would LOVE to read a sequel about these characters.

Reviewed from Library Copy. 

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2 Responses to Review: Doll Bones by Holly Black

  1. Pingback: Growing Up Through a Ghost Story | Tales of the Marvelous

  2. Pingback: Doll Bones | Holly Black | Audiobook Review

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