Book Review - Doll Bones

Author: Holly Black
Illustrator:  Eliza Wheeler
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry (May 7, 2013)
Source:  Finished Copy for review by publisher
Audience: Ages 9 to 13
Fiction * Friendship * Coming of Age * Ghost Story

Description from GoodReads:
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...

My thoughts on the book:
Doll Bones by Holly Black is a middle grade tale that will hook readers in and hold onto them until the end. It is the story of three 12 year olds – Zach, Alice, and Poppy – who have created an elaborate storytelling/role-playing game with action figures and dolls. When Zach’s father throws away Zach’s bag of action figures in a misguided attempt to help his son “grow up”, it sets in motion a series of actions and reactions that lead the three children on a journey of discovery and change.

Zach’s refusal to play the storytelling games and his fear in telling Alice and Poppy the truth leads Poppy to remove the “Queen” (a bone china doll) from her mother’s cabinet. Poppy reveals to Alice and Zach that the doll contains the actual ashes of a young girl who died. The girl’s ghost has asked to be returned to her grave in East Liverpool, OH (which is a long bus ride from where the children live in PA). Whether Alice and Zach really believe Poppy, each child strikes out on the journey for his/her own reasons. The reader is left to decide whether the doll is really communicating with Poppy.

Part of Black’s brilliance in her storytelling is that she has chosen to keep the story firmly in reality. Readers like the children have to come to their own conclusion about the Doll; however, each piece of the journey never seems contrived, but seems like something a group of tweens could have undertaken. This also keeps the balance between being just right scary vs. frightening scary.

Ultimately, Doll Bones is significantly more than a ghost story. It is a deep story of friendship, change, growing up, and leaving things behind. This is a journey story that results in characters growing and evolving in a meaningful way. The story is well-crafted without using more words than are needed. The pacing moves deliberately and never once did I want to scan a paragraph or skip a page. Additionally, Black is spot on with the voice of each of the tweens. It is easy to have children sound younger or older than they are, but here, the dialogue was real. The inclusion of dramatic dialogue that comes from times when the children fall into their character roles never dominates or takes over the story and just works to enhance the adventure.

In my opinion, Black has written her best story to date.  A book that will be in high demand once the children in classrooms or libraries learn about it.  And though I have absolutely no control over the decisions of the 2014 Newbery Committee, may I just say, I would be ecstatic if Doll Bones came away as a winner.

This is Holly Black's first foray back into the world of books for Middle Graders after a string of successful Young Adult novels.  For young fans, who may have missed her work on the Spiderwick Chronicles with Tony DiTerlizzi, Simon and Schuster has re-released the series with all new covers to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Field Guide.  Click here to see all of the covers.

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