Doll Bones by Holly Black
Published: 2013, Margaret K. McElderry Books
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
It made him feel, for a moment, like maybe no stories were lies… Maybe all stories were true ones.
Although at twelve years old friends Poppy, Alice, and Zach are now past the age where they should be playing with action figure toys, none of them is quite ready to give up their games. For Poppy, their games give her some love and attention lacking in her home life. For orphaned Alice, their games allow her to escape the strict rules that come with living with her grandmother. And for Zach, playing with Poppy and Alice has always been an important part of his life. They’ve constructed elaborate tales around their toys and created fantastical worlds.
One day, however, Zach’s father throws all of Zach’s toys away, deciding that it’s past time for his son to stop playing with them. Heartbroken, Zach refuses to play with new toys, and also chooses to keep the truth from Poppy and Alice, instead saying that he’s simply no longer interested in playing anymore. Not only their game, but their friendship itself is at stake when Poppy reveals she’s been receiving dreams from the Queen, a china doll kept locked away in her family’s cabinet. The Queen apparently contains the ashes of a murdered girl, who asks that they be laid to rest.
And so, for the first time in their years of friendship and playing fantastical games, Poppy, Alice, and Zach embark on a real quest.
Many people consider china dolls to be creepy in and of themselves. Add in a ghost story of a murdered girl, china made out of ground bones, and a doll that inexplicably moves and is treated like another human at times, and you’ve got the components for a satisfyingly chilling tale. Poppy, Alice, and Zach have always treated the Queen with a certain amount of reverence, so the possibility that she is more than she seems is actually quite fitting.
At its heart, Doll Bones is not a ghost story. Not really. Rather, it’s a story about how to cope with the changes life throws when one begins to grow up. Prior to Zach’s father throwing out his action figure toys, the three friends already had the sense that their friendship was beginning to fracture. Their games still mattered, but the question all of them appeared to consider was: for how much longer?
The quest to put the Queen’s ashes to rest, therefore, becomes not only a way to save themselves from being cursed by an unhappy spirit, but a way to continue their game, to allow this part of their lives go out with one final hurrah, so to speak. And, along the way, perhaps enabling both Alice and Zach to realize how important this part of their lives has been.
In addition to an examination of the nostalgia and challenges that growing up presents, Doll Bones is also very much a story about the power of stories and the influence that people give stories over their lives. For Poppy, the games and their associated stories are everything. For Zach (at least outwardly), that’s no longer the case. And the same may be becoming true for Alice. How can you show the continued importance of stories to those who no longer want to hear them? Zach and Alice initially think Poppy’s stories about the Queen are simply an extension of the game they don’t want to play. But here stories develop a life of their own, more or less. Their meaning and importance are unable to be ignored.
Doll Bones also challenges any clear delineations between fantasy and reality. At times that could make it difficult for the reader to figure out what’s really happening in the story, but the intermixing of realities is exactly what the trio of friends needs in order to move forward with their quest. The overall premise asks readers to believe in fantastic elements, albeit ones that are solidly grounded in our reality.
If readers can get past the creepy veneer, Doll Bones is so much more than a ghost mystery story. It’s a story about the enduring power of friendships, a story about the role that stories have within our own lives, and a story about both embracing changes and never fully giving up your past.
Rating: 4.5 stars