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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Doll Bones

Poppy set down one mermaid doll close to the stretch of asphalt road that represented the Blackest Sea. They were old—bought from Goodwill—with big shiny heads, different colored tails and frizzy hair. Then the mermaids waited for the boat to get closer, their silly plastic smiles hiding their lethal intentions. They’d crash the ship against the shallows if they could, lure the crew into the sea, and eat the pirates with their jagged teeth.

There’s plenty to like here, namely a nifty adventure plot with elements of mystery and horror, a trio of engaging characters, and those coming-of-age themes that we alluded to in the HOKEY POKEY discussion.

I’m ambivalent about this book.  I enjoyed it, but I wanted to like it even more.  I loved the idea of it from the reviews I read, but then when I read the book myself it seemed to be lacking something, and I’m not quite sure what.  I may have been expecting it to be scarier, but I’m not sure that entirely explains my slightly underwhelmed response.  This one is a middle of the pack title for me, but I can be convinced.  The book has lots of fans, and I’m hoping they will state their case here.

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Eric Carpenter says:

    Exactly this just wasn’t scary enough. It’s fine not to be scary, but when your billed as a scary story you need to bring the fright (not that expectations are the author’s fault).
    The three characters just weren’t that interesting. Sure they were developed adequately but the kids and their problems weren’t compelling enough. Not remembering where I read it but someone pointed out that a lot of the character motivations and decisions were strangely developed through expository dialogue.

    • I think that the issue of not being scary enough is more about marketing and expectations than the actual book. I don’t think Black was TRYING to write a horror, at least not exclusively.

  2. This one has my vote for the strongest rollicking plot. Something other books we’ve been discussing this year sadly lack. (I’m pretty sure the need for rollicking is somewhere in the criteria.) I agree about the not scary enough thing for myself. I was much more traumatized by FAR, FAR AWAY. But DOLL BONES is the right kind of scary for tweens. I’ve had kids not be able to finish it. I feel Black understands her audience well.

    I felt like each of the characters were well drawn and unique enough, although they were no Summer or Delphenie, or Hattie, or Bingo. Like many quest stories they each had their roll to play. I will have to read it again to watch for Eric’s expository content. I may have been too caught up in the adventure for close examination first time around.

    I enjoy a good road trip setting, but DB falls short for me to THE THING ABOUT LUCK.

  3. I loved this. I thought it was macabre rather than scary, and I like macabre. I’ll be able to give this to children who want “a scary book”, but the book doesn’t rise and fall by its scariness. What I liked best about the book was that I began, and I was IN; rooting for the characters, carried away by the thrust of the narration, envisioning the story with ease. What I admire about it is that it’s a sort of braid: one strand emotional story of family and friends, one strand adventure-journey, one strand ghost story. Add to that the fact that it’s a defense of the imaginative life, and I’m hooked.

  4. I was a little bit disappointed it wasn’t more scary — seemed like the foreshadowing of danger was stronger than the actual danger that happened. But on the other hand, I liked it better for being less scary, and the child I was would have liked it much better for that. Also, they were scared enough to do what the doll wanted them to do — so then it didn’t need to carry out its threats.

    I liked this as a quest novel, and as a coming-of-age novel, and as a tribute to Imagination, and as a friendship novel. Seemed like it was remarkably realistic as to what would happen with kids going off on their own.

    Plot and theme are the big strengths in this novel. Though I think the characterization is good, too. And with setting, she does show us each step of the journey.

    • Sondy, you said what i meant to about things that would really happen. I loved that the scope of the world was small enough for kids without drivers licences to navigate, yet large enough to feel the adventure. (I’m not sure how logical the overnight stay in the library was, but I’m willing to suspend that logic for such a juicy hideout.)

  5. I thought the writing in this book was magnificent. Granted, I had never read a Holly Black book before, so maybe other people think this is just a typical Holly Black story. I was hooked into the writing and plot from the beginning. I thought the writing alone distinguished the book. I think the characters are believable. I need to reread it to get some evidence for you guys.

  6. I loved this one. I don’t read a *ton* of middle grade fiction, but this has definitely taken the top spot for me in terms of personal enjoyment. (Yes, I realize personal enjoyment is not the same thing as being distinguished. But I’m such a critical reader that a book has to be pretty distinguished, IMO, for me to enjoy it in the first place!) I, too, was hoping for something scarier — but is it the story’s fault that my expectation wasn’t met? I don’t think so. The story was creepy and imaginative, and while it was different from what I expected, I *loved* what it turned out to be. For me, the coming of age bits were touching, and the adventure was exciting, but the truly salient theme was the power and importance of story. I loved that these children clung to their love of the fictive dream, even though their peers were leaving it behind, even though the pressure was on for them to leave it behind as well. There were just a couple of spots where I felt the author’s , or another adult’s, voice broke into the children’s dialogue (don’t have a copy on hand, but I think it was a part that had to do with storytelling or writing), but no book is perfect. There was so much else to love, I forgive it easily!

  7. I loved the themes at work here. The end of childhood has been a common thread among contenders here, but DOLL BONES blows them all out of the water. Her treatment of growing up was realistic, painful, and honest. Plus, it was subtly integrated into the text, instead of being dumped in an intro and then ignored. (*cough THE THING ABOUT LUCK cough*) Add that to the aforementioned quick, exciting plot and well-drawn characters that speak to a child audience, and I think we have a truly distinguished book on our hands.

  8. Martha Meyer says:

    Doll Bones was creepy (while being very realistic fiction) but the power of the story is in the relationships between the characters and its theme: how to maintain our love of collaborative story beyond our younger years. All of us that are screenwriters, playwrights, actors, fantasy game enthusiasts, children’s librarians, and others who care about the intersection of community and story will see their own history here. I loved this book! It was powerfully relevant to me and my own life. I think it also will resonate for kids at that ambiguous (almost amphibious) stage of middle school where you are sort of a kid and sort of an adult and neither. Holly Black has written a masterful work about STORY and I will follow her wherever she leads.

  9. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    While I hear a lot of love for the theme of this story, and while I think it makes an enjoyable read and is highly recommendable in library collections… I don’t yet hear much evidence of why it is distinguished under Newbery criteria. I found the character dynamics to be the most highly developed and interesting…but sometimes flatly delivered, so that I’m not sure I ever totally believed in the characters. They were almost characters of characters to me. And the mechanics of the plot…particularly the whole thing about taking the bus and then not taking the bus…seemed overtly manipulated–a lot of rigmarole to get the characters “on the road”–again, not totally believable. I suspect that the readers for this book are willing to set these weaknesses aside for the enjoyment of the story, and that’s fine–the book “works” that way. But I don’t think it is compellingly distinguished writing.

    • Isn’t “interpretation of theme or concept” one of the things we should be looking for, under the criteria?

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Yes, but only one of them. The book should be distinguished in all of the criteria “pertinent to it.”

  10. Personally, I had a lot of issues with this book, and they started with Zach.
    I had a hard time believing that Zach would choose to lie to his best friends in the world over the opportunity to verbally trash his father. It wasn’t even as if, after a conversation with his parents, Zach threw the toys away himself, and regretted the decision afterward, or his father accidentally threw them away. Nope. The toys were purposefully and maliciously thrown away.
    Add to that the lack of concern the group has over the amount of trouble Poppy will get in for stealing, and, if the plan succeeds, burying, her mother’s prized possession.
    Finally, the distance to this unknown graveyard seemed to be continually shifting.
    What starts as a distance so great that they have to take a bus, and even then not have enough time to complete the task, becomes short enough to walk to if they follow the river?
    Then they steal a boat and cover more ground than they could possibly cover on foot, and realize that they won’t make it home on time. . . ?
    If you’re looking for good pacing of a “road trip” (in my opinion) check out last years Endangered by Eliot Schrefer.

    That being said, the book was still a good, fun read. And I would recommend it without hesitation to any child with a taste for darker tales (I think the father turning the daughter’s bones into porcelain might be a bit too much for some of the more sensitive readers I know).

    • I believed Zach and his decision not to tell his friends. I think it’s actually one of the strengths of the book that throwing out the toys was not such a big deal from an adult’s perspective (his father and even his mother), but to Zach was just so deeply devastating that he had to shut off. Telling his friends would mean dealing with his own feelings to some degree. I don’t think what he did was what every kid would do, but I think it’s possible that a kid could react that way.

  11. Benji Martin says:

    I don’t know about the “not scary enough” argument. I’ve had several 4th and 5th graders try to read it. Only two have finished it. The rest have brought it back, after a week or two, and they always have the same reason for abandoning it. It was too scary. One of the two who did finish it, a fifth grader, had to sleep with her lights on while she was reading it. Maybe we’re jaded as adults, but I think for kids, it’s plenty scary.

    I think it’s definitely Holly Black at the top of her game. I’m hopeful that it will get an honor. It’s not as good as The Real Boy for me, but it’s one of the best that I’ve read so far.

  12. I loved this one. It is definitely in my top 10 right now. I do need to reread it. I would love to go point by point through the criteria and tell you all the reasons why I think it is distinguished, but this is really me just popping in to wave “Hi!” as I’m currently in the middle of five different things after returning from vacation.

    Man you guys posted a lot while I was out of the loop. 🙂

  13. Sheila Welch says:

    I had a hard time feeling connected to the characters at first although the theme is one I like explored in a book. Once things got going, I was caught up in the story and swept along. I think many middle grade readers will appreciate the adventure and the way this “real” quest compares to those in books. But by the end, the characters still seemed sketchy to me, not fully developed. This is fine and actually makes the book more accessible to kids. But to be a Newbery winner, I’d expect more depth to the girls. I was anticipating other points of view since Zach’s was fairly limited, but that didn’t happen. In addition, I agree with Nina about the writing. It did not strike me as “distinguished.” I might have felt it worked better if it’d been in first person. Still — a very good book but just not at the top of my list.

  14. Late to the discussion, but I’m reading this to my 5th graders right now . . . and as for “not being scary enough,” I beg to differ. A had a few parent emails this morning kindly letting me know their children had difficulty sleeping last night thanks to images of porcelain dolls made of little girl bones and filled with dead girl ashes and bits and pieces of bone. That’s a pretty frightening thought to a 5th grader.

  15. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Scary dolls remain the one thing that totally freak me out. I had to cover the cover of Doll Bones, which was scarier to me than the actual story. I do think that the story resolves that fear in a fine way, so I’m hopeful for your 5th graders getting over it!

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