Book Reviews 2015 · Magical Realism and Speculative Books · Middle Grade Book Reviews

‘Doll Bones’ by Holly Black

My name is Eleanor Kerchner.

You can call me the Queen.

I died in 1895.

Now it’s time to play.

3.75 Stars (Rounded to 4)

It’s time to post my first review of 2015, and it is for the first book I have completed this year, the middle grade ghost story ‘Doll Bones’ by Holly Black. I have really liked everything of Holly Black’s that I have read, and I was excited to read another book by her. This one was a Christmas present, and as it is very short, I was determined to read it on New Year’s Eve and cram it into my 2014 stats, however I got distracted, and ended up finishing this as 2:30am on New Year’s Day. Of course, I was expecting this book to be good, as it is Holly Black, and I will say now that it was good. It wasn’t what I was expecting it to be, although not in a bad way, but it definitely won’t be in contention for next year’s Top 15 of 2015!

‘Doll Bones’ is a ‘middle grade’ (I hate that term, but we don’t have an equivalent in the UK) story about a mysterious doll, owned by the family of a girl named Poppy. Poppy and her best friends Zach and Alice get embroiled in an adventure based on Poppy’s insistence that the doll is made of the bones of a dead little girl, and that this girl is trying to tell them something. I am a scaredy-cat, but I was adamant that a middle grade ghost story would not creep me out. I was right in this assumption, as it didn’t creep me out, but I wouldn’t say that this was due to it being too young for me, but as the story simply isn’t scary. If I had read this when I was at the age of the intended audience, I don’t think I would have been much more scared than I was reading it now. Despite the creepy doll on the cover and the review on the front cover, saying “nobody does spooky like Holly Black” (Jeff Kinney), the ghost story did not feel like a major part of the story. Yes, it is the doll that sets off the adventure in the book, but the focus was less on the creepy aspect and more on the development of the characters, and not every question that I had about the ghost story was necessarily answered. This wasn’t a bad thing, but I was kind of expecting the ghostly aspect to me more prominent than it was, so I would say that you should not be expecting a spooky story from this book.

The main focus of this book was actually a coming-of-age story of three twelve-year-olds, Zach, Alice and Poppy. The trio love playing games with action figures, fabricating stories and adventures rather than putting their focus on sports and drama or any other activities that are expected of them. Basically, they are in denial of growing up. I am very much a big kid, and the message that I got from this book was that it is okay to still believe in magic and the power of imagination, even when you have reached an age where you are expected to have ‘grown up’. It is a lovely message, which I would be in full support of promoting to children of 11, moving into secondary school under the expectations that they have to cut all ties with their childhood and immediately become mature. It is a common feeling for people making that jump, and I would recommend this story to them as a way of telling them that they should not rush into leaving their childhood behind. One of my favourite quotes stems from this idea:

“If they were real, then maybe the world was big enough to have magic in it. And if there was magic — even bad magic, and Zach knew it was more likely that there was bad magic than any good kind — then maybe not everyone had to have a story like his father’s, a story like the kind all the adults he knew told, one about giving up and growing bitter. He might have been embarrassed to wish for magic back home, but there in the woods, it seemed possible… Anything was better than no magic at all.”

Zach was a brilliant character. Caught between two worlds, his imaginary world with Alice and Poppy and his expected world on the basketball team, he is the embodiment of how a lot of people (including me) felt at that age. He struggles to cope with what seems like a tug of war between both sides, and ends up making stupid decisions and jeopardising everything. We have all been there and made stupid decisions like Zach’s, so I think that he is really identifiable even to an older audience. He refuses to accept his father dictating how his life should be run, and does not let his parents negatively influence the kind of person that he is becoming, and I think that this is incredibly strong. Alice was my favourite character. As much as I liked Zach, he sometimes took was a little too stupid, and his decisions bordered on ludicrous. Alice was the only one of the trio with an iota of sense, whilst still embracing her imagination and sense of adventure. If I was reading this as a twelve-year-old, I think I would see a lot of myself in Alice, as she is the kind of person that I was at that age. I think that it is for this reason that I liked Alice the most. I do pity her as well though, as Poppy acts incredibly irrationally towards Alice, and Alice never actually does anything wrong. On the topic of Poppy, I wasn’t too fond of her. Yes, I completely identifies with the ‘creating stories and not wanting anyone else to change them’ aspect, as I was probably a rather selfish child when it came to my creations, not wanting anyone else to alter them, however beyond that, I couldn’t connect with Poppy at all. She was very selfish and unreasonable towards her best friends. She thought of no-one but herself, and was completely satisfied using emotional blackmail to get her own way, ignoring Alice’s pleas that she would get into severe trouble for their actions. I suppose she was realistic, as I have met many people like Poppy before, but she is the kind of person that I cannot tolerate, and I would not be able to stand someone like her.

The adventure was rather ludicrous. They left their town, and their state I believe, with the savings of three tweens banded together, they broke into buildings, stole abandoned boats and camped out in the open with no more than a folded-out sleeping bag. Of course for a child to read, this wouldn’t matter, but as I am older than the typical audience, I think that it really tested my boundaries of plausibility. I’m not even going to get started on the bad influences of entering libraries after closing time through the window and ‘borrowing’ boats left at the side of a river, even if they had every intention to return the boat. I think that I am unpicking ideas from the plot which would not bother a middle grade reader, but as I am older than that, the actions of the characters seem to be either unbelievable or very inadvisable.

All in all, I would definitely recommend ‘Doll Bones’ to its intended audience, as I think that some of the messages in there would be vital to someone of the characters’ age facing the same dilemma about growing up. I wouldn’t rule out reading it if you are a big kid such as me, but you have to lower any expectations of the ghost story and bear in mind that you are reading a children’s book, and not dwell on how it pushes the boundaries of reality. Still, an enjoyable short read.

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