When I first heard about Doll Bones, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read it or not. Horror is not really my thing, and I definitely was it talked about as a middle grade horror book. And the cover did not really help–it’s a wonderful, eye catching cover, but you have to admit, the doll is fairly creepy. However, I love Holly Black and there was something about the description that made me decide to go ahead and read it. And I’m so glad I did.
You see, although the cover and the book talk I initially heard made it sound like Doll Bones is a middle grade horror, it’s not. Oh sure, the Queen Doll is a bit frightening, and Black does a good job of teasing out the tension of whether she is real or not for a long time. But saying that Doll Bones is about the Queen is like saying Code Name Verity is about spies: technically right, but oh so very wrong. Doll Bones is actually about friendships and growing up and integrity. It’s about three friends who are struggling to find their place in the new world of middle school. And Holly Black does a marvelous job on so many levels.
First, there are the characters. Zach, who loves playing the game with his friends, but who is pressured by the expectations of what boys should and shouldn’t do. This pressure is personified in his father, who throws away Zach’s action figures and kickstarts the plot. A lot of the book is centered on Zach’s struggle to make sense of who he is: both the athlete and the boy who makes up stories. There’s Poppy, who remained a bit of an enigma to me in some ways. And there’s Alice, who is being raised by her very strict grandmother.
And there’s the friendship between the three of them, which is almost a character in itself. They’ve always had each other and it’s been this wonderful uncomplicated thing. But growing up means becoming more complicated and that’s what lies at the heart of the story. How can you hold onto the important things when you’re changing and the world is changing around you? The answer that the story gives is a wonderful one, I think.
Moreover, I thought the writing itself was really nice. I admire Holly Black’s ability to write seemingly effortless prose, which actually has a lot of craft lying behind it. That’s definitely on show here, with a few moments that are a little more poetic/deep. I also liked the way the book explores issues of gender and race. They felt thought-out, not surface level or easy answers, but also integral to the story itself. It’s rare, as far as I can tell, for such a nuanced depiction to appear in a middle-grade book and I really appreciated it.
So, I really loved Doll Bones, despite a few minor quibbles about some of the plot points. Things seemed to happen very coincidentally in a few places, although you might be able to make a case for the Queen influencing events a bit (maybe?). Nevertheless, I think younger readers might not even see that, and I even just shrugged and accepted it. I liked some of the secondary characters as well, especially the librarian the children meet.
I’m not sure I’ve said anything new in this review–lots of other people have already read and appreciated this one, which isn’t surprising. But I was so impressed with the book, with the level of writing and characterization in it, that I had to add my praise.
Book source: public library
Book information: Margaret McElderry Books, 2013; middle-grade