Doll Bones, by Holly Black, is one of those "is it magic or isn't it?" stories in which a children's game "turns sinister." (I don't know what I'm quoting there, but it sounds like a quote from something.) For me, the game never turns quite sinister enough, but the dynamics of three friends entering middle school and ending a long-standing game of pretend are perfect.
What first drew me into the book was the game that Zach, Poppy, and Alice play. Using action figures, old barbie dolls, shoe boxes, and paper boats, they act out a nautical fantasy in which Captain William and thief Lady Jaye face carnivorous mermaids and shark kings to carry out the wishes of their Queen. The Queen is a creepy bone china doll that Poppy's parents keep in a glass cabinet. In the game, the Queen can never leave her glass castle, but she has the power to curse anyone who does not carry out her wishes.
The game is so engrossing that I kept wishing the kids would go back to playing it. But they don't. Because Zach's dad, a tough-guy cook who recently moved back in, does something that prevents Zach from playing the game. Then, instead of explaining what happened, Zach tells Alice and Poppy he's too old to play and just stops hanging out with them. So Alice and Poppy do something desperate to draw Zach back in: they remove the Queen from her glass cabinet.
In order for the rest of the book to work for you, you have to believe that Zach would do this, that he would just blow the whole thing off rather than tell Alice and Poppy what happened. And I think I believe it, because what Zach is really afraid of is that he will get emotional when he talks about what happened--he's not afraid of telling the truth; he's afraid of revealing the depth of his feelings about the game.
This novel works really well on the thematic level. After Alice and Poppy remove the doll from the cabinet, Poppy insists that the ghost of a girl associated with the doll has visited her in a dream and given them a quest. Although Zach and Alice have their doubts, they want to believe that their real lives can be a little like their games, that they can be a little like their characters, so they go along. And that's sort of the question the book asks: when you grow up, do you have to stop playing? Or is there a way to make your real life like the games you play as a child?
And there are moments when the kids act like their characters--Alice slips into a locked building like her alter-ego, the thief Lady Jaye, and Zach commandeers a sailboat. But, as Zach observes, adventuring turns out to be boring. The backdrop for the kids' quest is a semi-industrial area along the Ohio river in Pennsylvania, and their stops include a small park, a donut shop, a marina, and a library. While placing a quest in a boringly familiar setting serves the author's point, it also means she can't include the kind of world-building that draws many readers to fantasy stories.
It's tough. I really admire what the author is trying to do, but I don't know if she succeeds. Because after I finished the book, I still wanted to read more about the game. I still wasn't that interested in what happened next in Zach, Alice, and Poppy's lives.
I also was disappointed that the ghost story never really gave me the shivers. I wanted to be creeped out! I wanted to seriously doubt the sanity of the characters! I wanted to genuinely fear the wrath of the doll! I wanted a sense of impending doom to drive me to finish the book in one night! That didn't happen.
That said, this is a worthy book, one that respects fantasy readers and gets the details of middle school life right. I hope the cover is eerie enough that boys will pick it up, because we need more books that show boys having outward adventures as well as complex inner, emotional lives. And at just under 250 pages (with a few illustrations!), this book will be a good fit for my fifth graders.