by Holly Black
2013 • 256 pages • Margaret K. McElderry Books
After adoring her The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Ana’s amazing review of Holly Black’s Doll Bones made the next logical step for exploring Black’s back catalog obvious. I always had books at the bookstore that I would shelve and whisper “soon” to (oh, like you don’t talk to yourself in public), and Doll Bones was one.
I am kind of tempted to point you to Ana’s review and hand you off, because she, as ever, gets to the marrow of the matter. Doll Bones is the story of three friends who have played, essentially, a homemade version of Dungeons and Dragons since they were little—Alice, Zach, and their game master, Poppy. Now in middle school, Zach is starting to feel self-conscious about his best friends being girls and playing pretend so much. When his dad throws out his figurines, he, although enraged, takes it as the easy way out of the game. But Poppy is not to be deterred, and she demands that all three go on a quest to bury the creepy, antique doll that represents the Queen in their game world because it’s supposedly haunting her. As Ana beautifully writes, it’s about growing up into a strict gender binary being enforced by the various adults around them and how all three negotiate that. While Zach, a basketball player, and Alice, a theater kid, have access to prefabricated narratives that supposedly mesh with their interests, Poppy, who describes herself as the actually weird one, doesn’t.
So instead of retreading the ground that Ana covered first (and better), I wanted to focus on Poppy.
As she states late in the novel:
Alice rolled her eyes. “We’re not zombies just because we like stuff you don’t.”
“No, you’re right,” Poppy said, her voice speeding up and getting louder, like she was afraid she was going to be cut off before she got it all out. “It’s not fair. We had a story, and our story was important. And I hate that both of you can just walk away and take part of my story with you and not even care. I hate that you can do what you’re supposed to do and I can’t. I hate that you’re going to leave me behind. I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I’m next.” (200)
This passage immediately reminded me of Ally Sheedy’s Allison Reynolds in The Breakfast Club, hiss-whispering that “when you grow up, your heart dies.” Alice, Zach, and Poppy are all at the age where they’re smart enough to see what’s coming for them but starved enough for representation that they don’t have a way out of it. Zach is closest. His father’s honest desire to help his son survive the wilderness of adolescence is warped by his father’s acceptance of rigid gender roles as is. (Although any other boys we see are happy enough to rag on Zach for having girls for friends.) Alice, who has been negotiating her grandmother’s strict rules her entire life, is scared of what lies beyond. And for Poppy, it’s basically an apocalyptic wave threatening to submerge her world. There’s no path forward for her.
So I think it’s really important that Doll Bones is about the negotiations that lead towards Alice, Zach, and Poppy finding a way forward with the game that works for them. There are a lot of girls like Poppy in fiction: weirdo outsiders with niche interests. But a lot of them are either hanging on until they have enough agency to do what they want to do or have already found their fellow misfits. Poppy has found her misfits, but she feels (correctly or incorrectly) that they’re on the verge of leaving her, and she has to find a way to keep them together. What she comes up with may or may not be the right way to do it (although there is the mitigating factor of a haunted doll), but it’s the only way she knows how. And making that effort is ultimately what keeps them together against the coming tide. She even gets to a place where she’s okay with the game not continuing, but, hey, this book has a happy ending.
These negotiations are important to see, because what can seem obvious or straightforward is often not. I dealt with that a lot as a child. While Doll Bones is not my favorite Holly Black (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was so good, y’all), I can tell that it’s going to be an incredibly useful book for kiddos going forward.
I rented this book from the public library.