I'm going to start this blog post with a confession. I couldn't read this book for more than six months. It was sent to me by the publisher way back last June, and I was so excited to read it. I do love Holly Black, and there had already been enough pre-publication buzz that I knew I wouldn't want to miss it. But when I received it, the cover...well, it really freaked me out. And I am a wimp about scary stuff. So every time I would pick it up to read it, I would be afraid that I'd be up all night with nightmares, or...yeah, the cover really did it to me.
But that buzz I mentioned didn't go away, and it was quite often associated with the word "Newbery". I knew I needed to get past my fear and dive in, because I would be sorry if I hadn't read it by the end of January. Lo and behold, I finished it at the beginning of January and could grin when it won a well-deserved Newbery Honor.
The story begins with three friends - Zach, Alice and Poppy. They've been friends for a long, long time, and one of the things they like to do best is play the game. It's an ongoing, perpetually changing story that they tell and act out with a ragtag bunch of characters. There are pirates, thieves, women raised by bands of carnivorous horses, and the Great Queen. Most of the characters are action figures, bought at yard sales or thrift stores - the thief, Lady Jaye, is a repurposed GI Joe figure. But the Great Queen is different. The Great Queen lives in a glass-fronted display cabinet at Poppy's house. She is a china doll who sits perched on the shelf. "Zach couldn't remember when exactly they'd decided that she was the Great Queen, only that they'd all felt like she was watching them, even though her eyes were closed..." (p. 8). So they incorporated that creepy observation into their game. The Great Queen had the ultimate power over the game - if a character displeases her, then they are cursed until they regain her favor.
This game has gone on and on, morphing in different directions over time. But as the three friends turn twelve, things are changing. Alice, who lives with her grandmother, is being noticed by boys. Her grandmother is getting more controlling about what Alice wears and does. Zach's father, who is back living with Zach's mom after having moved out three years ago, is focusing on Zach's basketball skill. He doesn't approve of anything else. "' You're growing up,' he said, which seemed to be one of those weird things adults would say sometimes, stuff that was really obvious and to which there was no reply." (p. 23). And Poppy feels lost and left out more often - she has been growing up in a family with very little parental supervision, and she just doesn't seem to know where to go next.
Then Poppy and Alice come to Zach's house in the middle of the night and tell him an incredibly creepy story about the Great Queen. Poppy has taken her out of the cabinet - "The Queen's dull black eyes were open, her gaze boring into his own. He'd always thought she was creepy-looking, but in the reflected beam of the flashlight, she seemed demonic." (p. 62). Then Poppy explains that she had a dream where she had seen a dead girl, who sat at the edge of Poppy's bed. The dead girl told Poppy that she couldn't rest until her body was buried and that Poppy had to help her. Even worse, it turns out that the dead girl is really the doll. Her ashes have been made into the china doll.
There is a mystery surrounding this doll, of course, but there is also a quest. The doll (and the girl) need to be buried in Liverpool, Ohio, which isn't far from where the three friends are. So they set off to get her to Liverpool. It's partly fear, sure. The Queen (whose real name is Eleanor) told Poppy if she didn't help Eleanor, she'd get her. It sounds ominous and no one wants to find out exactly what she means. But even though they don't name it, they all know that this may be their last chance to play the game.
There is so much to talk about in this book. One of Black's gifts is wiring a middle grade book that is scary, but not too scary. There are definitely some creepy things going on. At one point, Zach wakes up after they've spent the night outside, at a makeshift campsite. "Turning, he saw the Queen resting in the dirt right behind his head, far from where she'd been the night before. ...Zach sprang up and scuttled away from her, his heart racing." (p. 113). The campsite is trashed, with food scattered and a ripped sleeping bag. There is never a real explanation for what happened - was it bears or other animals? Was it the doll? The lack of a concrete explanation only ratchets up the suspense. It doesn't help that just before he wakes to the mess, Zach has been dreaming about Eleanor as a little girl. The fact that a china doll is seemingly controlling their trip through their dreams is also a little unnerving. It's the sort of delicious discomfort and readers might enjoy without getting too scared.
One of the most interesting things about this book from my point of view is Black's choice of Zach as the narrator. It's definitely not what a reader would expect, especially from the title and cover illustration. They do indicate that the book will be scary (there are bones in the title and the doll on the cover looks very unsettling). And yet the book is told from a boy's point of view. As I continued to read and dwell on Zach as narrator, I realized he is actually a perfect narrator. To the outside world, he is beginning to look like a jock. He has grown very tall, and is playing basketball. Poppy condemns him by saying "'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.'" (p. 199) But while Zach may appear that way to the outside world, we know that isn't the way he really is. We know "That was why Zach loved playing: those moments where it seemed like he was accessing some other world, one that felt as real as anything. It was something he never wanted to give up." (p. 3) So Zach isn't what he seems. It makes him a really interesting character to me.
Another thing that struck me about the journey the three friends go on is how ingenious and creative they have to be to get anywhere. They all pack quickly, and pack what they can get without alerting anyone to what they are doing. It's the middle of the night, and they are trying to make the scheduled bus to Liverpool. "When he finally went to the cabinets, he felt as though he was provisioning himself for one of those epic fantasy quests... " (p. 71). And no matter how carefully they've planned (which isn't really very carefully at all), they are soon alone, out of money and supplies, and very far from home. But the three friends believe in the quest, and each other. They each have different reasons for agreeing to take this journey, but they are all determined to succeed.
This book was creepy, of course. But it's also a great book about friendship, growing up, imagination, and creativity. I would also note that there is a really awesome librarian in this book too! Now I'll shelve this book with the cover facing the wall so I don't have to look at that doll. But every once in a while, I'll want to check to see if it's moved.
Doll Bones. Holly Black; with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013.
sent for review by the publisher