Tuesday, May 21, 2013

2014 Contenders: Doll Bones, by Holly Black

Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends since they were little kids, and for as long as they can remember they've been playing "the game." On the surface, the game is simplistic, consisting mainly of discarded Barbies and G.I. Joes, but around these figures they have been weaving complex and ongoing stories of pirates, mermaids, and deadly quests. Now that the friends are in middle school, however, forces are conspiring to pull the childhood threesome apart. As a last gasp effort to save the game and the friendship, Poppy removes the super-creepy doll they call The Queen from her mother's china cabinet, and sets in motion a series of events that put the trio in real - and possibly supernatural - danger.

One quality I've always appreciated in Holly Black's writing - especially her young adult titles - is the gritty, realistic detail she uses to flesh out the lives of her characters. Strip malls, subway stations, and neglected latchkey kids are a staple of the urban fantasy genre, but she brings those settings to life with particular panache.

In Doll Bones, Black's signature suburban sprawl serves as a striking foil for the Victorian creepiness of the ghost story. The warring aesthetics also serve as a convenient shorthand for the underlying conflict of the book, because there are really two stories happening here. It's a haunted doll book, yes, but it's also the story of three friends trying to hold onto the magic of childhood as the grim realities of adolescence creep ever closer. Just as The Queen can't rest until they give her a proper burial, Zach, Poppy, and Alice must lay their own childhoods to rest before they can reconnect as adolescents. In order to do that, they must find a place for magic within the harsh reality of middle school life.

Where is that place, exactly? Is magic literally at work here, and are they actually being haunted by the ghost of a girl who was turned into a doll? Black leaves that question carefully and tantalizingly unanswered, suggesting that we don't need to leave magic behind as we grow up, but we all need to decide how to carry it with us. (Ex.: I kept wanting to shout at the three protagonists, "YOU'RE ROLE PLAYING GAMERS. Just go find a comic book store, and your people will joyfully welcome you into the nerd herd!")

In terms of the Newbery criteria, I think Doll Bones really shines in the areas of plot, theme, and setting. The characters are underdeveloped, though, and the prose, while workmanlike, is not what I'd call stylistically distinguished. Those shortfalls may keep it off the Newbery table. Still, this is Holly Black's best middle grade effort to date, and one of the most enjoyable books of the year so far. 

Published in May through Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster) 

P.S. - This song, by my favorite band, should obviously be the official soundtrack to this book.


  1. I read this over the weekend and loved it. It is my favorite MG read of the year so far. I agree it shines in terms of plot, setting, and theme. While I don't think this is the most distinguished so far character wise I didn't think they were underdeveloped. In a year where I have been more disappointed than not by the books I've read this will hold my support for being what that surpassed my expectations rather than not meeting them. (Though admittedly not criteria you can bring to the Newbery table.)

    1. You're right - "underdeveloped" is overstating it. Character is definitely not the book's main strength, though.

      I'm reading another pleasant surprise of a book now - stay tuned! Maybe this year is just taking a while to pick up (after all, last year's Newbery winner came out in what, January?).

    2. Can't wait to see what book your referring to!