Holly Black has been one of my favorite authors for many years, mainly for her dark and gritty fairy stories like Tithe and Valiant. But while those stories aren’t particularly child-appropriate, I have found that some of her strongest writing is geared toward a younger audience. Recently I checked out the audiobook of Doll Bones, a middle grade ghost story perfect for readers age 10 and up!
Doll Bones tells the story of three friends—Zach, Poppy, and Alice—who are bonded by their love for creating elaborate tales of adventure which they act out with their favorite action figures. At twelve years old, however, Zach is beginning to feel embarrassed about what others might think if they discover that he still hangs around girls and plays with dolls. When his father throws away all of his action figures in a misguided attempt to help him grow up, Zach sorrowfully concedes that it may be time to leave his childhood behind. But when Poppy comes to his window with plans for one last adventure, Zach cannot help joining in, even though he’s not entirely sure he believes her strange story.
Poppy says she’s seen a ghost. It all started with the creepy porcelain doll that Poppy’s mother keeps in the china cabinet. Poppy and her friends always thought the doll was creepy looking, but things get creepier when a young girl named Eleanor appears in Poppy’s dreams and says that the doll is made from her bones and contains her ashes. Eleanor died under mysterious circumstances and before she can be at peace, her remains must be buried beside the rest of her family in a cemetery several towns over. Oh, and she’s not afraid to stoop to a little haunting to make sure her request is obeyed.
Torn between fear and disbelief, the three friends set out on their first real life quest. My favorite part of this book is the way in which it plays with a traditional trope of the horror genre—the ambiguity of the supernatural. This trope, popularized by Henry James’ short story “The Turn of the Screw” invites the question: do ghosts exist, or are they only the creations of an overactive imagination? Is Poppy lying about Eleanor’s ghost in a desperate attempt to keep her friends from drifting apart as they grow older? Has she maybe unconsciously worked aspects of their game into her real life after being faced with the threat of ending their game forever? And did that doll just move, or is Zach imagining it? These questions and more plague the minds Zach, Poppy, and Alice as their bonds of friendship and trust are tested in new ways throughout their journey.
Doll Bones is part ghost story, part coming of age story, and Holly Black blends these two genres perfectly. At a time when so much of your life, your future, and even your identity are open for questioning, it’s only one step further to question the fabric of reality itself. But in the end, what really matters is that your friendships are real, and growing up doesn’t have to mean growing apart.