I enjoyed reading The Spiderwick Chronicles to my sons when they were younger, so I was eager to read a new(ish) middle-grade novel by Holly Black: the Newberry Honor-winning Doll Bones. Its blend of realistic friendship and a ghost story was perfect for this spooky season!
Twelve-year old friends Poppy, Zach, and Alice have been playing their game for years. They have an elaborate make-believe world, populated by an odd collection of action figures, old Barbies, plastic animals, and toy mermaids. When they play together after school, they work collectively and imaginatively to move the story forward, making up scenes, voicing the characters, and coming up with new ways to put their heroes in peril and have them overcome the villains. Overseeing their entire make-believe world is the Great Queen, an old bone china doll that sits in a glass-fronted cabinet in Poppy’s living room.
All of them, but especially Zach, know that they may soon outgrow their beloved game and pretend world, but none of them is ready for that just yet. Zach’s father, however, wants his son to give up his childish pursuits and focus on basketball, and one evening, he does something that forces Zach to give up the game. Angry and embarrassed, Zach doesn’t admit to his two friends what his father has done but just tells them that he doesn’t want to play anymore.
Their longtime friendship is on perilous ground when Poppy pulls the threesome together again to tell them that she’s been having frightening dreams. In her dreams, the Queen claims to be the ghost of a little girl who will not rest until the china doll is put into the grave where she belongs. Zach and Alice don’t know what to think. Is Poppy just making up stories to get the game restarted?
Poppy’s fear and urgency seems real, though, so the three friends set off on one last adventure together, to lay the Great Queen to rest, as she has instructed in Poppy’s dreams. Their short trip turns into a bigger journey than they bargained for, with challenges encountered at every turn, almost like one of their pretend games…but this is real life, and the friends might be in real danger. Besides, strange things keep happening with the china doll, making them wonder whether there really is a ghost.
I absolutely loved this fast-paced, supernatural adventure. The ghost story is perfectly creepy without being too scary, and the real-life challenges the kids face keep the story exciting and moving quickly. Best of all, Black writes about middle-grade friendship as if she clearly remembers her own adolescence. I especially loved the scenes of their pretend game because it reminded me exactly of the way my sons and their friends used to play – with a motley collection of animals, action figures, and other toys and a huge dose of imagination, making up amazing stories that went on and on. Poppy, Zach, and Alice come alive in these pages, and I was rooting for them to succeed in their quest and come home safely, with their friendship intact. Just describing it makes me want to read it all over again.
244 pages, McElderberry Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
For middle-grade kids who enjoy not-too-scary ghost stories, you might also try these great books by renowned children's authors this Halloween season: Leisl & Po by Lauren Oliver, The Graveyard Book (another Newberry winner) by Neil Gaiman, and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper.