I really appreciate a children’s book that has as much to offer an adult as a child. I’m thinking of those books of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, or Robert Louis Stevenson as examples. Doll Bones doesn’t actually fit into that category, but I’m sure that tweens and younger kids will enjoy it.
Zach Barlow is growing up. He’s put on enough height this year to join the middle school basketball team. What he still enjoys most, though, are the games he plays with his best friends Alice Magnaye and Poppy Bell, where they use dolls and action figures to act out elaborate stories. However, they never touch one doll belonging to Poppy’s mom that they call the Queen, an old porcelain doll that seems very creepy.
Zach’s dad left him and his mother for a few years, but now he has returned to them and is still trying to figure out how to be with them. One afternoon Zach comes home thinking about what will happen next to Pirate William, only to find his dad has thrown away all his toys and dolls. Zach is too upset even to explain to Alice and Poppy why he won’t play anymore. The two girls are devastated.
One night the girls come to see him. Poppy explains she’s had a ghost visitor who says her ashes are inside the Queen. The ghost girl has asked them to bury her ashes in her grave in East Liverpool, Ohio. Poppy believes the ghost and wants to go on a quest to return the bones, which are in the bag that makes the doll’s body. So, despite their fears of getting into major trouble, the kids get on a bus in the middle of the night to travel from Pennsylvania to Ohio.
Of course, on this trip they run into difficulties, including getting scared off the bus part way and having to make their way on foot or any other way they can find through a landscape of urban blight. On the way, some adults creepily seem to believe there are four of them. Eventually, they solve the mystery of who the girl is and what happened to her. As they meet these difficulties they grow up a little and figure out better how to handle their changing relationships.
I think kids will relate to the problems of Zach, Alice, and Poppy. I also think they’ll like the spookiness of the story. Doll Bones falls among the more innocent of contemporary books for tweens and younger teens, with a few chills but no violence or bad language. It would make a good story for any kid from ages eight or nine to, say, twelve or thirteen.