{Review} DOLL BONES by Holly Black

B O O K   T R A I L E R:

O P E N I N G   H O O K:

   POPPY SET DOWN ONE OF THE mermaid dolls close to the stretch of asphalt road that represented the Blackest Sea. They were old--bought from Goodwill--with big shiny heads, different-colored tails, and frizzy hair.
   Zachary Barlow could almost imagine their fins lashing back and forth as they waited for the boat to get closer, their silly plastic smiles hiding their lethal intentions. They'd crash the ship against the shallows if they could, lure the crew into the sea, and eat the pirates with their jagged teeth.
   Zachary rummaged through his bag of action figures. He pulled out the pirate with the two cutlasses and placed him gently at the center of the boat-shaped paper they'd weighed down with driveway gravel. Without gravel, the Neptune's Pearl was likely to blow away in the early autumn wind. He could almost believe he wasn't on the scrubby lawn in front of Poppy's ramshackle house with the sagging siding, but aboard a real ship, with salt spray stinging his face, on his way to adventure.
(Page 1~2, US hardcover edition)

This book is precious. Special. It won one of this year's Newbery Honors for a reason. This year's ceremony was extra special because I was there. In that room. Watching it live. I was honored to receive a copy for review at the Simon and Schuster book later that same day. DOLL BONES was the very first ALA Midwinter title I read in honor of its good fortune, and I don't regret that at all. It's so extremely quotable.

It's hard to contain this book to a summary without saying either too much or too little. There's a mystery to it, a creepy, sinister air brought on by a china doll that may or may not be alive, and may or may not be made for a real little girl's flesh and blood. Creepy, right? There are three friends, Zach, Poppy, and Alice. Poppy believes that she's seeing Eleanor's ghost and must bury the doll or suffer a terrible curse. Alice believes that Poppy is making everything up. Zach is torn between the two, not sure what to believe. The three friends set out on an unsupervised trip, determined to have one last adventure before they outgrow childhood, while they still have time to believe.

The essence, the core of this novel, to me, is the presence of childhood. Holly Black perfectly captures children on the cusp, on the verge of outgrowing childhood.

She captures the thoughts of a child not ready to let go, but knowing that he was already starting to...

        "He hadn't expected to say those words until they came out of his mouth, but they felt right...That was why Zach loved playing: those moments where it seemed like he was accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything.It was something he never wanted to give up. He'd rather go on playing like this forever, no matter how old they got, although he didn't see how that was possible.It was already hard sometimes."
(pg. 3, US hardcover edition)

and the "joys" of puberty in a delightfully descriptive way...

   "That past summer, the mysterious thing that had stretched other boys like taffy had started to happen to Zach."
(pg. 21, US hardcover edition)

the hardships as innocence is lost...

   "He wondered whether growing up was learning that most stories turned out to be lies."
(pg. 75, US hardcover edition)

the knowledge of the way friends change and grow apart, and the pain of separation...

   "I can see you changing...You're going to be one of those guys who hangs out with their teammates and dates cheerleaders and doesn't remember what it was like to make up stuff. And you--...You're going to be too busy thinking about boys and trying out for school plays and whatever to remember. It's like you're both forgetting everything. You're forgetting who you are. I thought this would remind you."
(pg. 199, US hardcover edition)

the utter heartbreak of losing everything that makes childhood so special...
(No wonder Peter Pan never wanted to grow up!)

   "It's *not* fair. We had a story, and our story was important. And I hate that both of you can just walk away and take part of my story with you and not even care. I hate that you can do what you're supposed to and I can't. I hate that you're going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like *dying.* It feels like each of you is being possessed and I'm next."
(pg. 200, US hardcover edition)

DOLL BONES gets to the heart of what it means to grow up. Children going through the same thing in life can relate to the uncertainty of the change, while older readers can reminisce over the heartbreak of moving from one stage in life to the next. We do lose something as we escape childhood and step into reality. Childhood is truly special, but we never know just how special until it's long-gone.

There are also some serious issues lurking in the distance. Poppy, Alice, and Zach all  have very different family experiences. Kids don't realize when they have negligent parents...they can be amazingly happy in horrible situations. It was heartbreaking to watch. Just as tough is a situation involving tough love, in wanting to force a child to grow up too fast. Or the toils of a child who has lost their parents, and how the idea of ghosts can tear her part. Each of these children went through so much, and they will all be shaped into their future selves by the experiences they are going through now. It's a somber thought. 

I also really loved how imaginative these kids were. Poppy reminded me so much of myself, especially in this passage:

   "Poppy looked flustered. She was good at making up stories, but she wasn't always good at accepting the stuff he and Alice made up, no matter how awesome it was. It took her a little while to accept a universe she didn't have total control over."
(pg. 137, US hardcover edition)

No one liked playing dolls with me, either. A hazard of being a storyteller, I guess. I always had the story outlined in my head, and got so mad if anyone deviated from it!

There are also some beautiful illustrations, and it was a pure joy to read DOLL BONES. The sentences were often so lovely or profound or true that I just wanted to pick them up and hold them against my heart.

Tragedy? Mystery? Ghost Story? Growing Pains? What exactly is DOLL BONES about? It's too hard to pick just one genre for this book. It's completely grounded in reality, but it also has fantastic twists and nuances that make readers wonder and guess and keep turning pages. It's a special, precious book, and once you read it, you'll understand just why it was honored by the Newbery Committee.
C O V E R   D E S I G N:

Properly creepy!

I especially love the background image of the three children sailing on the water. You don't notice it at first since the doll is front and center, but that image is SO IMPORTANT and it's crucial that the three adventurers are on the cover. I also love the way the Queen is sopping wet, a nod to the rest of the image on the cover!
O F F I C I A   I N F O:

Author: Holly Black
Release Date: May 7, 2013
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster
Received: For Review (ALA Copy )


Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. 

But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. 

Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity . . .


  1. This sounds REALLY good. I love books about what it feels like to be growing up and to be slightly aware of it, like the Valente The Girl Who... series. Have you read Flora & Ulysses? I really enjoyed that one as well.


Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to stop and comment! I appreciate it more than I can say. I try to respond to each one!