It’s October, when more kids than usual come into the library asking for “something scary.” Here’s a new one that is quietly creepy, but also a superbly written tale with much more to offer than just chills.
Doll Bones, by Holly Black (lexile: 840; AR book level: 5.4; 244 pp)
Twelve-year-olds Zach, Alice, and Poppy have been friends for most of their lives, and for years they’ve been playing The Game — a never-ending tale of adventure they make up as they go along. The characters are an array of old dolls and action figures that become pirates, mermaids, warriors, and thieves. And ruling over all is the one they call The Great Queen, represented by an antique bone-china doll belonging to Poppy’s mother, locked away in a glass cabinet.
Zach is the narrator of the story, and he loves the game — it’s almost like he’s “accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything.” But he’s also on the basketball team at school now, and would hate for any of the other guys to know he still plays with action figures. He’s at that awkward stage when he’d love to stay a kid for a while longer, and fears the changes that growing up will bring.
Then one night Poppy takes the Queen from the cabinet. Soon she begins to have dreams, haunted by a girl named Eleanor who says the doll is made from her bones. Eleanor promises she will make their lives miserable unless they properly bury the doll in her grave in Ohio.
Is Poppy just making this up so they can have one real adventure together? Zach and Alice aren’t sure, but finally Zach decides that “anything was better than no magic at all.” So in the middle of the night they set out on a quest, guided (perhaps) by the ghost of a long-dead girl.
Several elements make Doll Bones a cut above most ghost stories. First, the creepiness is subtle. There are no big, over-the-top, scream-worthy moments, just the strange occurrences that leave the characters and the reader wondering, “Could it be?” Second is the gradually-revealed mystery of the doll’s origins and Eleanor’s story. And finally this is more than a scary story — it’s also a tale about imagination, and growing up, navigating the inevitable changes that come with moving from childhood into adolescence.
I’m predicting Newbery winners again this year (hey, I got one right last year!), and I think Doll Bones will end up a Newbery honor book. (I’ve already decided Navigating Early should win, and I’m REALLY hoping What Came from the Stars will be on the honor list. Now wouldn’t it be cool if I got them ALL right?)