“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Doll Bones ▪ Middle-grade fiction

DOLL BONES by Holly Black, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
May 2013   Margaret K. McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster   Ages 5 - 9
A doll that may be haunted leads three friends on a thrilling adventure in this delightfully creepy novel from the New York Times bestselling cocreator of the Spiderwick Chronicles.
Story: Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been friends forever. And for almost as long, they’ve been playing one continuous, ever-changing game of pirates and thieves, mermaids and warriors. Ruling over all is the Great Queen, a bone-china doll cursing those who displease her.

But they are in middle school now. Zach’s father pushes him to give up make-believe, and Zach quits the game. Their friendship might be over, until Poppy declares she’s been having dreams about the Queen—and the ghost of a girl who will not rest until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave.

Zach and Alice and Poppy set off on one last adventure to lay the Queen’s ghost to rest. But nothing goes according to plan, and as their adventure turns into an epic journey, creepy things begin to happen. Is the doll just a doll or something more sinister? And if there really is a ghost, will it let them go now that it has them in its clutches?

BEHIND THE BOOK: Holly Black shares this behind-the-scenes info (really interesting story -- worth the read!):  "DOLL BONES is the book that I’ve been trying to write for a long time. It’s about a lot of things that are really personal to me—and it’s also about a lot of things that creep me out. I did two kinds of research for this book. The first kind of research was trying to get back at my own life when I was twelve. I was the kid who played dolls for way too long and didn’t want to give them up, even after my two best friends got more into music and boys. What I remember most viscerally is grieving over the lost dolls, the ones my friends played with who would never visit again. I still had my friends — and we had lots of new adventures ahead of us — but those people that they pretended to be would never come back. In talking about this book, I’ve been surprised at how many people have a story like mine, a story about being a kid who loved storytelling with friends and who hadn’t wanted to stop. About the moment we were shamed into quitting the game and dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood. A lot of those people grew up to be writers. 

The second kind of research I did was about the creepy part—about bone china manufacturing. I knew that I wanted the doll that the three kids have, the one that might be haunted, the one that they have to bury, to be made from bone china. I wanted that because bone china is made with ground-up bones— in the case of this doll, human bones. (Note: the bone char in actual bone china is cow. I am almost entirely sure that no one ever made bone china plates or bowls or coffee pots with human bone char.) There are only a couple of places in the US that ever manufactured true bone china. Which is how I wound up going on an adventure to East Liverpool, Ohio, a town famous for its pottery and about which I knew absolutely nothing else. I had one weekend, so I headed down to New Jersey, picked up my critique partner, Steve Berman, and we drove through the night to make it to a small hotel across the border in West Virginia. It was about four in the morning when we turned off the highway. Mist was rising off the woodlands around us as we drove through a series of wildly curving roads. We spotted a fence that appeared to be from the zombie apocalypse—too high to be keeping out only cattle, rusted, and ripped unsettlingly. At that moment, we turned a sharp corner in the road and saw the remains of an old building spray-painted with graffiti of dripping red symbols. This was the first time Steve turned to me and said, “turn this car around immediately.” It would not be the last. Now, look. I know what you’re thinking: that’s not so scary. Well, imagine the scene without a single streetlight, illuminated entirely by the headlights of my car, and with no houses for miles. It was pretty scary to us. So scary that Steve and I stopped talking entirely and just stared out the windows, waiting for a ghostly hitchhiker or headless horseman. 

We did finally make it to the hotel, which was brightly lit and perfectly ordinary. We checked into our rooms, laughed at ourselves for being scared, and slept until our alarms woke us. Then it was Saturday and time to go into town. I set my trusty GPS to the address for the Museum of Ceramics. As we crossed over the tiny, skinny bridge into East Liverpool, I realized I had no idea what to expect. The Museum turned out to be near the center of town, across the street from a gorgeous library, on a wide street full of shops and restaurants. There was only one problem— despite it being a beautiful Saturday morning in the Spring, almost every shop was closed. A small café stood open on one end of the road and several blocks over, a place called Pants Unlimited was having a going-out-of-business sale. (And yes, Pants Unlimited made it into the book—how could I have left a detail like that out?) A few cars were parked on the street, but there were no people anywhere. Ignoring that, we headed straight for our goal, The Museum of Ceramics. And lo, it was awesome! Within were beautiful examples of pottery crafted in East Liverpool from 1840 to 1930 and explanations of the processes, as well as the rise and decline of the pottery industry. We watched a short film and I took lots of notes. There was even another person there — or at least sometimes there were footsteps, and once I thought I heard someone’s voice. So, another person, or a haunted museum. On our way out, the nice woman at the desk asked us why we’d come to East Liverpool. “Oh,” said Steve, “to visit this museum.” 

Unfortunately, that was the wrong answer. She stared at us as though we were dangerous lunatics. There were several spots I wanted to visit: the kids, carrying their creepy bone doll, try to make the journey by bus (it does not go well) and must attempt to bury the doll in a cemetery (surprisingly, the cemetery goes better than the bus stop). I thought visiting a few local spots would be a simple process, but alas, we were led astray. No, I mean we were literally led astray. The GPS kept malfunctioning, trying to take us off cliffs and into bogs. ‘Turn this car around, Holly!’ Steve kept chanting. It became our musical accompaniment, varied with different lyrics: ‘‘Do you think the car is possessed and trying to kill us, Holly?’’ and “Didn’t we almost go over this very cliff ten minutes ago, Holly?” (Now that he mentioned it, that cliff did look familiar.) Eventually we made it to the place where the bus stop was supposed to be. I had the street names, and the exact intersection. We got out of the car and walked around and around. The Internet had sworn to me there was a bus stop there. Surely the Internet wouldn’t lie to me. “Let’s go into this bar,” Steve said. “Oh, good idea, let’s ask for directions,” I said. “Sure . . . that’s what I meant,” said Steve. Raucous laughter spilled out of the bar. Several people who lived nearby seemed deeply amused by the thought that there might be, or ever have been, public transportation available nearby. They seemed to feel that I was making a hilarious joke. I couldn’t believe that my twelve-year-old characters turned out to actually be better at bus travel than I was. At least they were able to locate a bus stop. We did actually make it to the cemetery. It existed. It was a perfectly ordinary cemetery, which at this point I found soothing—until we were leaving, when I noticed there were spigots that came out of the ground. They were drive-up spigots, as in we could literally drive up and serve ourselves a cup of water from one. I did not do this, because I (a) don’t travel with a water bottle to fill, (b) never drink water, even though I know I should, (c) thought that grave water might possess the bad kind of magic that turns you into a zombie, and (d) because Steve told me not to. In no way do I mean to imply that East Liverpool was anything but a great place. There was a lot of driving involved for me: I was delirious pretty much throughout. Everybody was lovely to me, possibly because I looked like an escaped lunatic who had somehow got hold of a notebook. 

I went to this place hoping to find stories, and I did: the last piece of my story was born there in the mist, the quiet museum of bones, the apparently imaginary bus stop, and, most of all, in the experience of trying to navigate unfamiliar (and sometimes scary) place with a friend. I found what I needed for DOLL BONES and, also, unlimited pants. I’m glad I went to East Liverpool. And, Steve, thanks for coming with me." 


"A little bit scary and full of heart, this story grabbed me and wouldn't let go."

- Rebecca Stead, Newbery Award winning author of WHEN YOU REACH ME

"Doll Bones positions itself to look like a simple ghost tale about a creepy doll, then sneaks in an engaging, thoughtful look at the ramifications of adolescence and storytelling. Consider this the thinking child’s horror novel. A devilishly clever read from an author too long gone from the children’s book genre."

-- Elizabeth Bird, A Fuse #8 Production, SLJ blog



Lemon the Duck said...

This story centers around the relationship between Zach, Poppy and Alice, three 12-year-olds, who have been friends for a long time. They've always enjoying making up adventures with action figures and dolls. Now in middle school they've starting to develop other interests and start to drift apart. Poppy asks Zack and Alice to help her on a real life quest involving her mother's antique doll which Poppy says is made from a dead girl's bones and is haunted. The story lines of the kid's personal lives, the dolls & the stories the kids tell about them, and the "Queen Doll" and her history weave together in a complex tale. The story stays interesting and a little scary, but not too scary. I really liked the characters they encountered on their quest. There's background information on the making of bone china.
I rate this a 5 out of 5 for middle school children.
Laura Backman

Laura Miller said...

Holly Black has managed to write a middle-grade fiction book that delivers adult suspense and just enough creepiness to engage the reader throughout the entire experience. "Doll Bones" takes the reader on an adventure to help a "special" doll find her way back to her rightful place. The characters, Poppy, Zach, and Alice are 12-year-old friends who still enjoy playing and making stories together as they share family challenges. The friends find they are beginning to discover new interests in middle school but with the help of an antique doll, they go on an adventure of creepy proportions.
Parts of the book reminded me of some adult dramas such as "Criminal Minds" in that the doll is filled with a dead girls ashes and the story line behind the doll deals with an unstable parent's ability to deal with his daughter's death. That aside, I think a middle grade reader has probably experienced plenty of television and movie scenarios and this story will not be too scary. I did enjoy the baker's donut selections in the story. I'd love to try them in real life.
I would give "Doll Bones" a 5 out of 5 but also give a slight notation that the creepiness of some aspects might bother a few readers.

Anonymous said...

Doll Bones is certainly creepy enough to entertain younger kids. It was interesting to see the relationship between Zach, Poppy, and Alice as they struggle to enter the teenage world. It wasn't easy, considering their family backgrounds. The story of Doll Bones echoes their fears of growing up by showing them what they can do.

I give this a 4 out of 5

Catherine Yezak, Special Education Teacher, Quest High School

Becca said...

I used this book for a read-aloud. My students couldn't get enough...when I finished reading a chapter they were begging for more! The "scary" factor was just enough to keep them interested and yet keep them from having nightmares. While the story focuses on the mystery of the doll, there are many themes that wind their way through this book that deal with growing up. Great book!!!

Mrs. Null said...

Holly Black delivers a story infused with friendship and adventure with an air of creepiness throughout. Friends Poppy, Zach, and Alice are fueled by their imagination and somewhat ruled by an off limits old china doll imprisoned in a cabinet at Poppy's house. After Zach's dad betrays his childhood by throwing away his "toys" and Poppy keeps having dreams about the ghost of a little girl who can not rest in peace until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave, the three friends head off for an epic journey. Through hurdles, more dreams, and adversity, their travels will slowly unravel bits of the mystery and insight to what the china doll means to them.

Readers 10 and up will especially appreciate this type of mystery and will surely relish in the creep factor! The three characters are likable and the plot moves swiftly, making this the type of book that gets read in a few days for even the most reluctant of readers. Add this to your summer reading list and if you have a classroom or library to share this book- be prepared to hear a chatter about it and to see it move off the shelf often!

NMills said...

I loved the Spiderwick Chronicles, purchased several copies of every book. I did not like Doll Bones. Too creepy and odd for middle school.

3 out 5

MB said...

I enjoyed Doll Bones. It was just enough weird to keep me and my students interested. Some parts were a bit clunky though ("...he felt as though he was provisioning himself for one of those epic fantasy quests..." pg 71.) Provisioning himself? I know many boys would enjoy the book, but it will be a hard sell because the cover.

Picnic rating: 3.5