American contemporary, friendship stories, Ghost story, Gothic, middle grade, Mystery, Poignant Coming-of-Age Story

Perfectly Creepy: Doll Bones Review

doll bones

I don’t know what it is about dolls, but they are the perfect subject for creepy stories. One of my favourite scary stories is The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Wren Wright, which I recommended on Bookish Notions last Halloween . Doll Bones is a rare breed, a true cross-genre tale with both literary and commercial appeal.

Zach, Poppy and Alice have created a fantastic, elaborate game involving dolls, pirates, mermaids and other worlds. Despite their differences, the game binds them together, that is until puberty kicks in and suddenly they find themselves with doubts, new allegiances, and their friendships hanging in the balance.

Warning, this review contains spoilers!

This is a fantastic blend of creepy and poignant, as only Holly Black can do. I love the double-barreled plot, with the story of The Queen and putting her to rest mirroring the story of the trio’s friendship. This gives the story some depth, so readers who don’t gravitate towards ghost stories have a more traditional contemporary friendship story to hook them, and those who read only scary stories have something a bit meatier to read. This blend of ghost story and contemporary real-world conflict is very similar to the structure of The Doll House Murders, an is one of the reasons I love that book, as well.

‘The Queen,’ perfectly captured by the cover art of Eliza Wheeler, is of course not JUST a doll, but is made from the ground bones of a child who died tragically. The reader is unsure if it is The Queen making the children do things, or if the children are using The Queen as an excuse to act. The uncanny qualities of The Queen truly set the story apart from other ghost stories.

There is a very industrial, lower-income feel to the setting. During their journey, the villages the trio pass through are full of abandoned businesses and homes and the people are down on their luck. None of the children are wealthy and there are a variety of non-nuclear family situations. Zach’s dad has returned after abandoning him and his mother for three years, Alice lives with her strict Filipina grandmother, and Poppy is one of a large family, her brothers often getting into trouble with the law. The game is made up of toys from found objects and toys from goodwill. There is something very contemporary and authentic about Black’s setting and her characters, it feels as though it has been informed by the recent recession and it’s effects on the average American family.

Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 did an excellent review of this book, describing it as ” what would happen if R.L. Stine ever wrote a Newbery quality horror book for kids.” I will be curious to see how award committees react to this book. It has a lot of kid appeal and is on one hand, a ghost story. But the richness of characters and the authenticity with how Black portrays the growing pains of friendship during puberty sets it apart. The most uncomfortable bits are not the scary parts, but when the friends talk about each other behind their backs, deal with crushes, or secret notes. Doll Bones walks many different lines (genres, commercial vs literaty) and is yet another feather in the highly decorated cap of Holly Black.

Doll Bones will be available in May from Simon and Schuster Canada.

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