Doll Bones by Holly Black. May 7, 2013. Margaret K. McElderry Books. 256 pages. Ages 10-14.
Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been best friends since they were little, engaging in a continuous "game" where they imagine and act out all kinds of adventures with characters they make up. These characters are represented by dolls and action figures, and headed by The Queen, an old porcelain doll Poppy's mother keeps locked in her curio cabinet.
But now that they are twelve, things are changing. They are all growing and changing, both physically and emotionally, developing other interests, and they are all dealing with issues at home. Poppy's parents are never home and her older siblings are known for getting in trouble, Alice must live with her strict, over-protective grandmother after the tragic death of her parents, and Zach struggles with accepting the re-appearance of his father after a 3-year absence. His father is overly-concerned with what other people will think of Zach hanging out with girls and playing with "dolls", and throws Zach's action figures away.
As all this is going on, Poppy shows the others that she took The Queen out of the cabinet, and since then has been having strange dreams about a dead girl named Eleanor whose ashes were used to make The Queen. She believes the spirit of the dead girl is attached to the doll and is haunting her, asking Poppy to return her to her home and bury her in her family plot. At first Alice and Zach think Poppy has made up a new game, but agree to go along because it sounds like a great adventure. But as they embark on their quest, strange things happen that make them wonder if the doll really is haunted.
Will they be able to complete their quest and maintain their friendships? Is the doll really haunted?
I first read this book after it was named a 2014 Newbery Honor book, and re-read it recently in preparation for a middle-school book club discussion group. This book has a fast-paced plot that is part coming-of-age story, part thriller. The first time I read it was around the time the movie "Annabelle" came out about a possessed doll, and I would liken this book to a PG version of "Annabelle" for kids. I really enjoyed this story, that is both character- and plot-driven. The characters are relatable to other kids around that age who are also experiencing similar "growing pains" as their bodies, relationships, families, and interests change. The story behind the doll is creepy and a little gruesome, but gives the story a nice edge without being too much.
Another little detail that I appreciated was the references to several other books of children's literature: Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, and The Twits; Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and Rick Riodan's Percy Jackson series.
Having both male and female characters, and having the story told from the male characters point of view, will make it appealing to both boys and girls. I think this book would appeal to a large range of readers with it's different layers, but I would recommend it in particular to those looking for something with a little more complexity to the plot, or specifically asking for something spooky or dealing with friendships and coming-of-age. I would encourage all readers to at least give it a try.
Other Books By This Author
Holly Black is also the co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles, and the author of two other fantasy series, Modern Faerie Tales and The Curse Workers.