What’s the scariest thing you can think of? A thing that is almost universally feared? Spiders? Clowns? Public speaking? What about … creepy dolls? You know the kind, the kind that have heads that seem to sit uncomfortably on their cloth shoulders, the ones with porcelain arms and legs that bend in unnatural ways, the ones with too big smiles for their soft fabric faces, the ones with shiny eyes that blink slowly closed when you lay them down yet somehow still seem to be watching you? Oooh, did you feel that little shudder?
Yup, that’s scary. You know what’s scarier though? What’s the scariest thing I can think of? Middle school.
Many years ago during a high school assignment, my English class was given a piece of paper and told to draw pictures about our impressions of our life through four stages: before entering school, during elementary school, during middle school, and during high school. We worked in solitude and then compared pictures. Everyone had different drawings for before school and elementary school, though most of the “before school” pictures were just colors or flowers and hearts. Our high school sections, naturally, had the most detail and even writing but they were all different too. Only one thing was the same: our middle school sections. Independently the whole class, from the most popular kids to the most nerdy, had colored their middle school section with black marks, scribbles, red Xs, scrawls and jumbles of the angriest, darkest, ugliest colors. We laughed about it at the time but I never forgot that – for all of us middle school was a jumble of darkness, a scrawl of deep unhappiness. All these years later this is still so revealing to me.
Is there a worse horror than middle school? In Doll Bones, one of the most resonant and truly creepy middle grade novels I’ve ever read, Holly Black expertly uses the conventions of ghost stories and horror stories to argue that no, no there’s really nothing scarier than middle school. Not even the ghost of a girl trapped in the body of a very, very creepy doll. But don’t get me wrong – that’s pretty scary too. And thus so is Doll Bones, an ingenious and heartbreaking middle grade book about the powers of story and the pressures of growing up.
Doll Bones is the story of three friends, Zach, Alice, and Poppy. They’ve grown up together playing “the game” – an elaborate make-believe game that uses their dolls and action figures to tell an extensive adventure story. But now they’re in middle school, about to be teenagers, and Zach calls off the game. It feels over … until Poppy tells Zach that the eerie, bone-china doll who ruled over the game as the Great Queen is really possessed by the ghost of a dead girl and the Poppy, Zach, and Alice must bring the game to an end with one last adventure: burying the Great Queen. The three of them set off on a quest and an adventure that will change everything.
So, I think what you’ll hear about Doll Bones in reviews is that it’s scary and atmospheric. That’s absolutely true, it’s creepy in the best way, the kind you can’t shake, the kind that crawls up your skin and gives you gooseflesh. I think you’ll also hear a lot about how Doll Bones is about the power of storytelling. This is also absolutely true, it’s a narrative that, in the best ways, tells readers that imagination and play are important, can change your life, and have real value.
But what *I* want to tell you about Doll Bones isn’t just all that – it’s that this is a story about the rigid boxes of gender expectations our society tries to force us into and how the scariest part of adolescence can be trying to break out of those boxes.
You see, Zach doesn’t just call off the game – he calls of the game because his father throws away Zach’s players in the game. His … well, his dolls. Even though Zach is a popular basketball star, his father thinks he’s too old to be playing with dolls. 12 year old boys, after all, well they shouldn’t. Without the dolls, the action figures, Zach can’t play. And here’s a really nice touch: Zach is too ashamed to even admit this to his friends. He’s been twice-shamed – for playing the game and caring deeply about it and for having to admit that his father thinks doing this makes him less. And it’s more than just the dolls – it’s clear that what Zach’s father is also really talking about it PLAY. The clear implication is that Zach, that boys, shouldn’t be playing make-believe and telling stories, which is exactly the kind of play and pastime encouraged by dolls and action figures. That’s feminine which makes it weak and thus bad. It’s these gender binaries and their associated societal punishments that will really grind your bones to dust and give you nightmares. They are the scariest things of all.
I know! This is some transgressive, brave, and quite frankly brilliant storytelling and plotting.
Doll Bones is an incredibly rich novel because of this and it’s also a lifeline to all the middle-schoolers, boys and girls, who are struggling with trying to fit into the boxes society creates for us about “girls do this” and “boys don’t this” and “this is the right way to talk to boys” and “this is the right way to be friends with girls.” Without ever being didactic and sentimental about it, Doll Bones says “It doesn’t have to be just one way. It can be any way you want – it can be any story you want to tell.”
Doll Bones is out today! You can purchase it from your favorite local indie bookseller or check out a copy from your library. If your library doesn’t own a copy, suggest they purchase one. Of course, it is highly recommended as first purchase for middle school and public libraries and is the perfect book to booktalk to 6-8 grades in the lead-up to summer reading! Also, I hope this is going to be in serious Newbery discussions this year. It’s so finely crafted it really deserves to be.
Doll Bones isn’t just one of my favorite novels of 2013 – it’s one of my favorite middle-grade novels ever. It makes the most of the potential of this genre; the way middle grade should use this confusing and overwhelming time of life to tell a story that young readers who connect with will keep with them always. Doll Bones is that kind of adventure and that kind of story.