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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 3: Doll Bones vs Eleanor and Park


Doll Bones
by Hollly Black
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
Saint Martin’s Press

Somehow, despite the buzz, the plethora of positive reviews, the online chatter and endorsements from authors as venerated as John Green, Eleanor & Park had slipped beneath my radar until very recently. It’s not that I didn’t know of it–it would have been impossible to ignore all of the accolades–but I’d somehow avoided knowing very much about it. What I’d gleaned was, essentially, the following: Eleanor & Park is the story of a misfit girl and a misfit guy who fall in love in a rundown town somewhere in the middle of the country.

As far as plot summaries go, that one achieves the broad strokes–Eleanor & Park does tell the story of two misfits falling in love in a rundown town (in an impoverished portion of Omaha, it turns out). But you might similarly describe, I don’t know, Romeo and Juliet as a play about a rebound relationship, or Harry Potter as a series about a rigorous boarding school. What’s missing is all the nuance, texture, and richness that makes the book extraordinary.

Eleanor and Park do more than fall in love. They find themselves in each other. They find safe harbor in the middle of a world that seems determined to pulverize them against twin rocks of shame and loss. This is particularly true in the case of Eleanor, whose home life over the course of the novel spirals from bleak to depressing to outright dangerous; she clings to Park and to his stable family the way a kitten might when it is afraid of getting bucked off, even as she simultaneously pushes him away, desperate not to need him as much as she does, certain that he will inevitably be  lost (as, she has reason to believe, are all good things in life).

And the writing! Real, revelatory, authentic, and somehow restrained, like a person turning over rocks on the beach, exposing the undersides, searching for a shell.

Oh. And it’s funny.

I started this book at about 8 pm on a Tuesday. By page 66, when Eleanor and Park have moved past their initial distrust and mutual loathing to something that feels like friendship but isn’t quite to something that is even more, I had already cried. There’s something about seeing so much vulnerability on the page that reminds us why we’re vulnerable, why we love, how we get damaged, and why it’s so, so worth it.

If reading Eleanor & Park was like discovering a new flavor of ice cream (really sad, really poignant ice cream), The Doll Bones was like digging into a tried and true favorite. I actually reviewed The Doll Bones for the New York Times just before its release.

I love middle grade books—I was a middle grade reader when I first fell in love with books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Doll Bones has much in common with some of the classic works of children’s literature I loved back then: it is both a friendship and a quest story, with very real elements of danger and some frightening supernatural elements. And a haunted doll. (Okay, so that’s not really a classic element, per se, but it bears mentioning!).

The aforementioned haunted doll, nicknamed The Queen by best friends Zach, Poppy, and Alice, has always presided over an ever-evolving game of their own creation. But when The Queen visits Poppy in a dream and reveals a terrible truth—the spirit of a murdered girl is actually trapped inside of her—the three friends decide (at Poppy’s insistence) to go on one last mission to put her to rest. An epic quest ensues, replete with meddling strangers, commandeered boats, and evidence of the mysterious paranormal at work. But the undercurrents of strain, and the increasing tension between the three former best friends, are almost more haunting. Alice has a secret. Zach no longer wants to play. And Poppy will do anything—anything—to keep her friends by her side.

Did I mention a haunted doll?

At the risk of plagiarizing myself, what I really loved about The Doll Bones was the diversity and richness of its themes and the expansiveness of its ambition. This is a book that looks at the nature of friendship; the difficulty of growing up; the nature of belief; the importance of storytelling; the possibility of happy endings.

It’s really hard to compare middle grade fiction to YA fiction, especially two books as diverse in genre and theme as The Doll Bones and Eleanor & Park, and so the fact that I had to do just that was unenviable. Ultimately, I picked Eleanor & Park simply because it moved me more. The Doll Bones is smart, complex, and full of depth and adventure. It transports. But Eleanor & Park reveals—truths about love, truths about pain and loss, truths about what it is to be human–and to maybe, once, if we’re lucky, find someone who makes us feel just a little bit more.

— Lauren Oliver


 Eleanor and Park might draw comparisons to last year’s fan favorite The Fault in Our Stars (just see the comments – Undead Poll, anyone?), and with good reason: it’s “really sad, really poignant ice cream.” Now, to be critical, it might be a bit too much at times, don’t you think? But it sure was powerful, and it’ll be a solid contender, though it’ll have a tough matchup next round with Sten Blix and Jacob Grimm or flying squirrels and Ms. Meescham (two of my favorites). How about we let the kids’ books win? Yet Doll Bones, in my humble opinion, wasn’t really an inspiring middle-grade book. (A bit boring, perhaps?) Anyways, we have some wonderful matches to look forward to: not only vacuum cleaners and ghosts, but deeper questions of fate: poetry, luck, love, childhood, and Sugar Man-DeSoto-raccoon scouts, to say the least.  

– Kid Commentator RGN




  1. I really liked Doll Bones except for one part — I had a hard time believing that Alice would do and say some of the thing Black has her doing. She is a rule follower, and while I can see her breaking some rules in order to further the quest, I have a difficult time seeing her agreeing to breaking the law.

    Eleanor and Park was fabulous and deserves its many accolades — it’s probably my second-favorite book on the list. It deserved the win — I’m just interested in seeing how it fares in the next round.

  2. I think there’s a word missing at the end of the third paragraph. Shouldn’t it read “certain that he will inevitably BE lost”?

  3. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    Recap from Mock BoB 2014: 81 followers predicted Eleanor & Park to win this match. So far, 23 people got all three match results correctly.

  4. Dolls Bones is totally my type of book, and then it disappointed me. Eleanor and Park is totally not my type of book, and it surprised the heck out of me (in a good way). Plus, another really enjoyable commentary. The judges are doing really well this year!

  5. I totally agree with Meredith: Doll Bones is right up my alley. And I was disappointed. Eleanor & Park is also in my realm and I LOOOOVED it. Characters were much deeper and plot richer.
    Huzzah for choosing this over Doll Bones.

  6. Delighted to see E&P win this. I’ve seen it dismissed as an “issue book,” but it is so much more than that, with great characterization and unexpected humor and such truthful-feeling writing. I’ll have a hard time deciding if it comes up against Flora & Ulysses, since those were my two favorite kids’ books last year.
    E&P also won its battle today in the Morning News Tournament of Books, against Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.

  7. TeenReader says

    I love the judges this year. All three have had Great analysis, limited whining, and acknowledgment of the book’s flaws. And am I the only one who would have liked Doll Bones to win?

  8. I don’t think I’m alone in the feeling that this was the toughest matchup yet. A win for either would’ve been justified, but, well, I’m pleased.

  9. I’m a big fan of Doll Bones, but even I am happy with E&P winning. I think my reasoning would be almost identical to Lauren Oliver’s. It moved me more. But she pointed out things I loved about both books, and I appreciate that.

  10. Kid Commentator GI says

    Yes! I am overjoyed that this beautiful, down to earth masterpiece of realistic fiction has triumphed, finally getting the recognition that it rightfully deserves. For me, although I love and will miss Alice terribly, E&P had more depth and hit closer to home. Touching, adorable, and filled with dozens of “aww” inspiring moments, your heart would have to be made of steel to not want the magical love that Eleanor and Park have.

  11. I just want to say, once again, that I am happy NOT to be a judge. I picked E&P to win. But if I had to justify my decision, any attempt to be even a tiny bit objective would have caused hours of tossing and turning and mumbling. So, yay, E&P won and I don’t have to explain why I’d pick it over Doll Bones. That said, in another match-up, Doll Bones may have been a shoo-in. Still happy about the not-being-a-judge thing.

  12. This is the first battle in which my students agreed with the judges. You can read what they said here: In battle 1 and 2 in our Mock BOB, the students picked the fictional stories. I thought that would happen. I am thrilled about Eleanor and Park because I really enjoyed it. I am reading Rowell’s next book , Fangirl, right now. It is even a better story.

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