One of the awesome job perks to being a librarian* is that you get to go to publisher previews.
Well, okay, “getting” is a strong word. You don’t get greeted with invitations upon graduation. Really, you have to finagle your way in through charm and grace and knowing the right people and then manage to not muck it up or get a bad reputation among your fellow librarians as a free book-hoarder**, but once you manage that, it’s one of the best perks of the job. You get to meet nice people, drink free coffee, and get books before they’re available to the general public.
Which is how I’ve received, read, and am now reviewing Doll Bones by Holly Black three months before it hits shelves. Thank you, Simon and Schuster!***
For as long as they’ve been friends, Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been playing a game. One giant, ever expanding game with pirates, and thieves; femme fatales, and mermaids. Watched over by the creeptastically bone china doll they call The Queen, the game has been the one constant in their lives for years. Zach’s father has come and gone and come back again; Poppy’s parents are too exhausted to parent her; Alice’s grandmother keeps a tight leash and distributes groundings for the smallest of infractions.
The game is the foundation their friendship is built on, and when Zach’s father throws away his game figures, he can’t bear to tell the girls why he can’t be a part of the story anymore. “I’m done playing,” he tells them, and lashes out when they push for more. He can’t be a part of the game without his characters, he just can’t, and they’ll just have to deal with it.
Only then Alice and Poppy show up below his window in the middle of the night, risking parental wrath and clutching the Queen. Her name isn’t the Queen, Poppy says, she’s Eleanor, a little girl who died over a century ago, and whose grief-stricken father chopped her up and fired her body into a bone china doll. There’s a bag of human ashes inside the Queen with the name of a nearby town written on it, and she’s been appearing to Poppy in her dreams asking to be buried– to have her restless spirit laid to rest.
It’s crazy. It’s totally crazy. But Alice and Poppy have it all worked out– they can get to the town and back before their parents notice; they can lay Eleanor to rest. They can have one last adventure with the Queen.
Doll Bones is middle grade, and it’s so Holly Black it’s like you can smell her perfume. It’s a morbid, dark concept that somehow keeps from becoming a horror book; Eleanor is dead, but she’s been dead for years and the grizzly end that befell her is a fuzzy, vague thing. We get snippets of her story through Zach and Poppy, but she’s rarely the major focus of a scene and that’s by design because, really, she’s not the point of this book.
This isn’t a horror novel, it’s an adventure story, and at its heart, this is what it’s all about:
“Everything’s changing. If we don’t keep going now, we’ll never do it. We just won’t… and Eleanor will find someone else to haunt, because I won’t be interesting enough to have a ghost talk to me. I won’t deserve to be the hero of a story, and I won’t be one.”
“Everyone has a story,” Alice murmured. “Everyone’s the hero of their story. That’s what Ms. Evans said in English.”
“No,” Poppy said, her low voice very fierce. “There’s people who do things and people who never do– who say they will someday, but they just don’t.”
Zach, Poppy, and Alice are growing up; getting bigger and being forced to leave their game behind. Their in middle school already; Zach is starting to be teased for playing a girl game with girls. Alice is starting to develop. And Poppy is starting to feel the tide of change– the slow, creeping knowledge that things are not going to be the same ever again, and she doesn’t like it.
Doll Bones perfectly captures this feeling; knowing you’re on the cusp of a change you’re not sure you want, and also knowing you have no choice but to accept it. “Growing up”means the end of the games and the simplicity of their friendships for these kids; it’s not something they want to do, but resisting it is impossible. More than that, growing up means moving away from fantasy, and fantasy is the only place anyone seems to be a hero anymore.
Quick, satisfying, and featuring an awesome librarian with pink hair (BECAUSE HOLLY BLACK LOVES US), Doll Bones is the perfect boy/girl book for kids who don’t want full-fledged fantasy, but still want an escape. Think of this book as a darker Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; mystery, adventure, running away from home because you’ve got to run somewhere.
Doll Bones by Holly Bloack
Rating: Harry Potter
Readalikes: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; The Night Tourist. Perfect for your middle school kids who like/will like Sweeney Todd.
*The other perks include being able to dress as yourself for Halloween, giving free readers advisory in bookstores, and having this hilarious conversation over and over again:
“So you had to, like, go to school for that? What’d they teach you? That Dewey stuff and how to shush people? BWAH HAH HAH I’M HYSTERICAL!”
**Librarians love to judge other librarians for stealing all of the ARCs at these things. We have deeply ingrained unspoken social mores as a people, one of which is “don’t be a book hog.”
***Review done on the Advanced Reader’s Copy of the title, provided to me by the publisher. Content is subject to change, but I really hope it won’t because, y’know, it’s pretty good content.