Doll Bones, by Holly Black (Simon and Schuster, Middle Grade, May 2013)
Zach and Poppy and Alice have been friends forever. For years they have played a great game of imagination, in which their dolls and action figures became pirates and thieves and mermaids and warriors in a great fantasy epic. Ruling this world was the Great Queen, an antique bone china doll of much creepiness, locked inside Poppy's house in a glass case.
But Zach and Poppy and Alice are getting older, and middle grade kids aren't supposed to play with dolls. One night Zach's dad throws out his action figures, and Zach, heartbroken, abandons the game without explanation.
The Poppy begins dreaming about the Queen, and her dreams bring the three kids together for the most reckless adventure of all--one that takes place in real life. For the Queen is no ordinary doll--she was made from the bones of a dead child, Eleanor. And Eleanor wants to be buried.
So Zach and Poppy and Alice set out in the middle of the night to the town where Eleanor died and the doll was made. Their ghost-haunted journey that will test not only their willingness to bend a few laws here and there (like breaking into a library, and "borrowing" a boat), but more importantly, it will make or break their friendship...
These three kids had me on their side right from the start. I was lucky to have a little sister, so I could keep playing games like theirs safely away from the pressures of middle school, but it is so, so, so easy to be right there feeling Zach's pain. Add to that the fact that there's girl/boy growing-up tension starting to happen, and I wasn't sure I wanted to keep reading...
But I bravely kept on going, and was rewarded with a very satisfactory fantasy meets real life story full of historical details, clues being uncovered, logistical difficulties with money and food, all described in the sort of beautifully on-track writing that makes the reader feel caught up in each moment of the story.
What wasn't fully described is what actually happened to poor Eleanor...there are tantalizing glimpses, through the dreams they send, and a few tantalizing scraps of information uncovered by the kids...but she remains a mysterious sad figure.
(It just occurs to me, having typed that, that Eleanor's fate could be a metaphor for the whole adolescent condition. A living, breathing, child dies and is reborn as a china doll, her vital creative spark and individual personality sublimated into society's rigid mold...This could be why the doll exercises such power in the great game the kids play--she is not something that can be a part of childhood imagining, except as something to be feared).
But in any event, the ending was deeply satisfying, with the kids talking openly about the fact that things are changing, but realizing that change doesn't have to mean loss.
"Quests are supposed to change us," Zach said.
"How about real life?" asked Poppy.
Alice picked up a blade of grass and folded it in her fingers. "What's that? Seriously. This was real. This was a story that we lived. Maybe we can live other stories too" (p 243).
And that is true, and wise, and hopeful.
But then a few lines down it gets even better:
"This was our last game," Poppy said. "This is the end of our last game."
"Oh, I don't know," said Zach. "With the Queen gone, the kingdoms are going to be in turmoil. Lots of people want her throne, all of them willing to manipulate, scheme, and battle to get it. And with William and so many other heroes dead, it's going to be a different world. A world in chaos. Maybe we can't play it the way we used to, but we could still tell each other what happens next" (pp 243-244).
I am so glad they get to keep their story, and that the end of childhood doesn't have to mean the end of imagination.
(I am also glad that Zach's dad ended up being really, really, sorry for the terrible thing he did).
(The cover offers lots more Fun with Metaphor, what with the three kids sailing rough waters to an unknown destination, while the doll sits below the water, like a Freudian Leviathan in the depths of their unconscious minds, she herself dripping water like she has just emerged in a new birth...or something.)
Other reviews-- Random Musings of a Bibliophile and The Book Smugglers