Tuesday, May 21, 2013
2014 Contenders: Doll Bones, by Holly Black
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.