Doll Bones by Holly Black

  • Title: Doll Bones
  • Author: Holly Black
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1416963987
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: horror/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; Carnegie Medal Nominee for Young Adult

Author information: Holly Black has written a number of novels for both young adults and children, as well as some in a graphic novel format. Her website includes contact information, biographical information, appearance information, FAQs, as well as information about and links to all of her titles. She also includes links to her livejournal and blog, which discuss items of relevance in Black’s day-to-day life. She also has a section on her website discussing writing tips and techniques, complete with links and suggestions of other materials that might help an aspiring young writer.

Reviews: School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave this title starred reviews. All of these reviews discuss the fact that Black does a great job creating characters that readers will care about, placing them on the precipice of leaving childhood behind. She portrays her characters realistically and readers will sympathize with their struggles. School Library Journal also articulates the fact that this book blends a wide variety of different genres and styles into one cohesive narrative, saying “this novel is a chilling ghost story, a gripping adventure, and a heartwarming look at the often-painful pull of adulthood”.

Readers annotation: Eleanor’s ghost wants to be laid to rest. And Zach, Poppy, and Alice must help her.

Summary: Zach has grown up with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, and the three of them play elaborate fantasy game involving figurines, dolls, and action figures for years. Zach’s dad decides Zach is too old to be playing these games, so he throws out all of his game characters, which causes him to quit the game without explanation to Poppy or Alice. Although their game playing days might be over, Poppy confesses that she’s been having strange nightmares about the old china doll in her house, and she convinces Zach and Alice to accompany her on a real-life journey to put the ghost of the girl in the doll to rest. Nothing goes according to plan and the ghost becomes more sinister as the quest goes on, but eventually they are able to learn more about her past and locate the graveyard where she belongs and inter her remains. Along the way, they learn a lot about each other, growing up and leaving behind the innocence of childhood, and Zach reconciles with his father.

Evaluation: This novel defies easy categorization. It has elements of quest narratives, coming-of-age stories, horror, fantasy, and realistic fiction, all of which come together for a gripping and entertaining read. Zach’s struggles with growing up will resonate with all young readers who are trying to learn to navigate a new world in which they have more responsibilities, more freedom, and more anxieties about fitting in and being part of a larger social sphere. The relationship between Zach and his father is especially well crafted; the difficulties they have communicating and the confusion and resentment they both feel towards one another is believable, and the ending, in which they forgive each other and vow to work harder at their relationship, is an honest and not overly easy happy ending.  These struggles play out against an eerie backdrop of ghosts and late-night journeys that build suspense and keep the reader intrigued and wanting to read more. The ghost in the doll is truly creepy, and the way that the author refuses to decide for the reader whether the ghost and haunting the children experience is real or not leaves the story ambiguous enough that readers can come to their own conclusions.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5 The themes explored in this book are important and relevant to many children, the plot is entertaining with a perfect amount of spine-tingling scares, and the characters and their relationships are honest and believable.
  • Popularity4/5  The creepiness of this book may deter some readers who scare easily, but those who enjoy some horror and darkness in their novels will love this book. The pacing, characterization, and plot are sure to find many fans.
  • Appeal factors: horror, speculative fiction, growing up, troubled parent-child relationships, creepy dolls.

Read-alikes: 

  1.  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a natural recommendation for readers who love a dose of spooky in their fiction. Nobody Owens, the protagonist, grows up in a graveyard raised by ghosts, and has to confront the man who murdered his family. Like Doll Bones, this novel emphasizes the relationships between characters and the idea of growing up.
  2. Fans of the undercurrent of menace and urgency in Doll Bones would likely enjoy Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. Based on the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, this title highlights themes like friendship, courage, and perseverance.

Book talk ideas: The trailer for this book is delightfully creepy and would be a perfect introduction to a book talk about this book because it would let children know right away if the book will be too scary for them. If they love the trailer, the book will be a great fit for them, but if they thought it was too creepy, then it’s probably a good indicator that they shouldn’t check it out. After the trailer, talk about the friendship between the three main characters and how they decide to go on a modern day journey to put a ghost girl’s remains to rest. On the way, they learn a lot about themselves, each other, and growing up and leaving childhood behind.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think that Eleanor’s ghost was real? Why or why not?
  2. How do you think each of the characters change over the course of their quest? Who changed the most?
  3. Why do you think Zach’s relationship with his father is so strained?
  4. In your opinion, what is the hardest part of growing up? What are Zach, Poppy, and Alice afraid to lose by growing up?

Reason for reading: This book has been getting a lot of attention recently (not only did it win a Newbery Honor, but a lot of blogs have been talking about it, and it shows up on a ton of lists of “best children’s books of 2013) and I wanted to know what all the buzz was about. I also wanted to read something that was a little scarier, because I feel like I don’t have a lot of good recommendations for books when it comes to young readers who like reading books that will scare them a little. I felt this book would definitely fall into that category, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Additional relevant information: Holly Black also recently published a YA vampire book that has received positive reviews. Publisher’s Weekly interviewed her about this title, and she talks about why she decided to write a vampire book as well as her inspirations and writing process.