Holly Black

Doll Bones

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Doll Bones Summary

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Doll Bones (2013) is a young adult fantasy novel by American author Holly Black, with illustrations by Eliza Wheeler. This gothic fantasy follows a trio of preteens that get caught up in a supernatural conspiracy when their role-playing game turns into a quest to return a haunted doll to a gravesite in a nearby town. Exploring themes of abandonment, friendship, mortality, adolescence, coming of age, and the nature of change, Doll Bones quickly became a quick best seller and one of the most critically acclaimed young adult novels of recent years. It was named a Newbery Medal Honor Book in 2014, the same year it won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. Praised for its moody horror visuals and complex plot, as well as its well-developed characters, Doll Bones is considered one of Black’s most effective works.

As Doll Bones begins, three kids—Zach Barlow, Alice Magnaye, and Poppy Bell—play a macabre role-playing game they invented and act out with action figures. Poppy runs the game, playing the ruthless Great Queen and other villains, while Zach plays William the Blade and Alice plays Lady Jayne. Zach and Alice are questing aboard the ship Neptune’s Pearl, encountering monsters and dangers along the way. However, the fun ends when Zach’s father throws out all of his action figures, including William the Blade. Angry with his father and embarrassed that he cares so much about action figures, Zach ends the game and refuses to tell his friends why he doesn’t want to play anymore.

Days later, he is woken in the middle of the night by Alice and Poppy, who tell him that Poppy had a dream about the Great Queen, who was based on an antique doll that Poppy’s mother keeps in a glass cabinet. The dream told her that the doll is made from the remains of a dead girl named Eleanor Kerchner, who is now a ghost and wants her remains returned to her grave.

The kids run away, leaving notes for their parents, and take a bus to East Liverpool, Ohio, with the doll. On the bus, they encounter Tinshoe Jones, who sees the doll as a real girl and believes the driver conspires with shape-shifting aliens. After seeing the driver acting suspiciously and conspiring with the station attendant to capture them, the kids flee the bus in East Rochester, Pennsylvania.

After spending the night in a park near the Ohio River, the trio wake up to discover that their small bag of supplies has been torn apart and destroyed. Hungry, they head to a nearby donut shop that sells oddly flavored donuts. They’re surprised when the shopkeeper offers the doll, who he sees as a hungry little girl, a Pepto-Bismol-flavored donut. Although they argue over whether to continue the quest, the kids decide to try walking to East Liverpool.

They run into trouble when they reach a dead end at the river, but Poppy is determined to keep going and blackmails her friends into continuing. Stealing a sailboat, they sail their way to East Liverpool. Afterward, they find themselves stranded, as they’ve missed their chance to catch the bus back. After they fight, Poppy blurts out the secret she’s been keeping—that Alice has a crush on Zach and wants to date him. Angry at each other, the kids make their way to the town and find a diner where, once again, the server sees the doll as a person. After finding a map, they break into the library and research the cemetery. They spend the night in the library and are surprised by a young librarian named Miss Katherine, who keeps them in a break room and makes them call their parents. They realize the doll is missing and break out to search for the doll until Zach finds it in a women’s restroom.

The doll is near a display of Lucas Kerchner’s pottery. The display shares details about Eleanor and her father, as well as her mysterious disappearance. Fleeing the library, the kids steal bikes and go to the cemetery, where they search for the willow tree that marks Eleanor’s grave. Zach confesses about the action figures and why he ended the game. He runs off and the girls find him sitting by the Kerchner family gravestone, which has a willow engraved on it. They bury the doll and leave the cemetery to meet their guardians, who have been called to the town. Before they leave, they promise to keep their story alive.

Holly Black is an American author and editor best known for her fantasy series The Spiderwick Chronicles. A prolific writer, she has written dozens of young adult and middle-grade novels, most of which belong to series. She has also written dozens of short stories and edited and contributed to fiction anthologies. She once edited and contributed to a now defunct role-playing magazine that helped inform many of the elements in Doll Bones.