I don’t watch much horror in general. I’m what you might call a chicken. When I do see it, though, I’m not particularly disturbed by random splattering and gore. The psychological stuff is far more of a lure for me. If I’m going to be honest, though, one of the scariest things I ever saw was on the cheesiest of television shows. It was this insider look into the world of ghosts and on the show we heard about a haunted home. It was a well-lit suburban house and we watched as a woman took off her shoes, walked over to the couch, and took a nap. When she woke up, the shoes were next to her. And that right there is what scares me half to death. Which is probably why a book like Doll Bones by Holly Black works for me on a horror level. Yet for all its creepy packaging, Black’s latest hides at its heart a remarkable, thoughtful take on what it means to grow up and pass from childhood into adolescence. Dark enough to attract fans of Goosebumps and the like yet able to make them actually think a bit about their own lives on a deeper level, Black strikes the perfect balance between the sensational and the smart.
By and large middle schoolers do not play with dolls. But Zach, Poppy and Alice have been playing “the game” for years and it’s only gotten better with time. Using dolls of every type they spin wild tales and live out personalities different from their own. That is, until Zach’s dad throws out his toys in an effort to stop the game. Ashamed, Zach lies to his friends that he no longer wants to play. This act leads to unforeseen consequences when, in desperation, Poppy releases a bone china doll from her mother’s cabinet, only to find herself haunted by the ghost of a long dead girl. Inside the doll are ashes and if any of the three is to get any peace they will have to bury the doll in a specific grave. If they succeed they’ll have fulfilled their quest. If they fail? They may suffer worse than a ghost’s wrath. They might be . . . ordinary.
Essentially what you’re dealing with here is what would happen if R.L. Stine every wrote a Newbery quality horror book for kids. And though it may not sound like it, this is high praise. I’ve always been fascinated with the nature of horror in books for children. Kids adore being scared. I recall well the adorable three-year-old who would return to my reference desk over and over again asking for “scary books” (I’d just hand him some very tame vampire or ghost fare and he’d be happy as a clam). The fascination fades for some, but for others it taps into the same instincts that drive adults to watch loads of horror films. The trick to writing really good horror literature for kids is to strike the right balance between the creepy and the safe. Go too far in one direction and you’re no longer writing for children but for teens. Go too far in the other direction and you’re not creepy enough, the kids tossing you aside the minute you bore them. Do not be mistaken. Doll Bones isn’t a chill-a-minute festival of screams. It’s smart and thoughtful and just happens to be about a doll constructed out of human marrow and stuffed to the brim with a little girl’s ashes.
To my mind Doll Bones fits neatly into two distinct trends I’ve picked up on in 2013. On the one hand, it’s a book that doesn’t give up its mystery readily. You can read this book for a long time before figuring out whether or not the book really is a horror fantasy or if it’s just an elaborate con by one of our heroes. A book that is similar in its reluctance to give up the goods too soon is the remarkable science fiction/mystery The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore. These authors appear to be inclined to believe that their readers will stick with their novels partly for the good writing and partly to see if the book lives up to the promises of its dust jacket and cover. They aren’t wrong.
The second trend in chapter books for the kiddos I’ve notices is a prevalence of titles where characters must say goodbye to childish things. The aforementioned Water Castle does this, and the new Jerry Spinelli Hokey Pokey does little else. In Doll Bones, Black separates this book from being yet another average ghostly tale by giving it a tragic edge. The tragedy is partly the characters’, sometimes admittedly inane, inability to talk to one another honestly about what’s going on in their lives. It’s also the tragedy of getting older and realizing that the friends you had as a kid may not be the friends you’ll have as a teen. What once you had in common with other people fades away in the face of looming adolescence (a theme of the Frances O’Roark Dowell book The Kind of Friends We Used to Be albeit with less sentient dolls).
All this talk of letting go of your youth and babyhood is told in the context of dolls. The kids play with dolls and the storytelling relies on their physical presence. So is storytelling itself childish to kids? Playing pretend is, and Black has to provide her child readers with the question of whether creating stories is an act of adulthood or childhood. Certainly Zach is good at it. You can hear him standing in for millions of writers all over the world when it says, “He liked the way the story unfolded as he wrote, liked the way the answers came to him sometimes, out of the blue, like they were true things just waiting to be discovered by him.” Transitioning from pretend to some kind of a creative output is often so difficult people will just abandon the act when they become teens. You can feel Doll Bones fighting against this tendency.
In telling this tale Black holds herself back in a number of ways. She never shows too much of her hand when recounting multiple creepy moments throughout the quest. By the same token, she could easily have turned the kids’ fantasies with their dolls into separate narrative moments. You could have begun the book with a rip-roaring delve into the adventures of William the Blade and the hearty crew of the Neptune’s Pearl and then revealed that it was all the fantasy of three tweens. Instead, Black chooses to remain entirely in the real world. The gift of this book is that it feels like it could happen to the kid reading it. No one walks through a magic door into a strange land or encounters mystical creatures. These three kids have to get, on their own, to a graveyard far away and they have to deal with some VERY realistic problems like weird strangers on buses, bus tickets in general, suspicious adults, and cell phones (Black is to be commended for not ignoring their existence and instead weaving them skillfully into the plot). This grounding in reality is what makes the horror that much more engaging.
It is interesting to note that as of this review Ms. Holly Black is not a particularly well-known name amongst the younger set of readers. Years ago she helped Tony DiTerlizzi create the Spiderwick Chronicles and all the books in that series. Kids these days don’t remember Spiderwick all that well, though. So while Ms. Black continues to impress on the YA side of things, she hasn’t connected with children in a while. Happily, this solo outing does her proud. She indulges in smart wordplay and strong good writing for much of the book. I enjoyed lines like, “Before Lady Jaye, Alice’s favorite character had been a Barbie named Aurora who had been raised by a herd of carnivorous horses.” And the little details delight, like the fact that Zach’s cat’s name is The Party, or the fact that Poppy refers to her rear as her “buttular region”, or even the donut shop that has every possible donut flavor, from wasabi or acorn flour to Pop Rocks or spelt.
If the book has problems it probably has something to do with the suspension of disbelief. The entire story tips on the fact that Zach refuses to tell either Alice or Poppy why he won’t play the game any more. So why exactly does he make everything so monumentally worse by not telling them what his father did to him? For a long time this fact plays out as a convenient plot point and not a believable fact. It isn’t until you’re at the tail end of the book that Zach’s confession “ripped away the fog of numbness and made him grieve.” Until that moment he claims he doesn’t want to play the game because it’s easier than admitting he never can again. I buy it, but I didn’t buy it for a very long time before that explanation. Also unclear is the ghost/doll. It’s hard to root for folks to help something malicious. Was the doll evil and ghost good? Were they one and the same or different? All unclear.
It all comes down to something Poppy says near the end of the book. She’s upset that her friends are growing up and possibly apart from her. So she gives voice to a fear that so many children feel but are unable to verbalize on their own. “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.” Pair that line with one earlier concerning Zach. “He wondered whether growing up was learning that most stories turned out to be lies.” Doll Bones positions itself to look like a simple ghost tale about a creepy doll, then sneaks in an engaging, thoughtful look at the ramifications of adolescence and storytelling. Consider this the thinking child’s horror novel. A devilishly clever read from an author too long gone from the children’s book genre.
On shelves May 7th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Well Witched by Frances Hardinge
- Juniper Berry by M.P. Kozlowsky
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Other Blog Reviews:
- Meticulous to the last, read Holly Black’s How I Wrote Doll Bones. It shows the lot of the author bound to a word count a day. And, as a native Kalamazoo girl, it makes me wonder what was so thrilling about Southwest Michigan in November!