Doll Bones. Newbery? Take Buzz Seriously.

Doll Bones coverZach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice. But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity . . . Goodreads

Yes, I know it is early. Yes, I have read reviews that say “almost but not quite.” But I think the Newbery buzz about Holly Black’s Doll Bones warrants your attention.

And here’s the main reason why: adults choose the Newbery winner. You might be thinking, “Thanks, Mrs. Obvious,” but hear me out. Doll Bones is a creepy story, an adventure story, and a friendship story. But most of all it, is a story about imagination and play and how vital they are in children’s lives. Adults who serve on the Newbery Committee must be members of the Association of Library Service to Children. They are the exact kind of adults who strongly and whole-heartedly believe in the power of imagination and play –the kind of adults who have dedicated their lives to encouraging this in children whenever and wherever they are able. According to the John Newbery Award Committee Manual, members are charged to consider among other criteria the “interpretation of the theme or concept” of each nominated title. Doll Bones‘ theme is not only important and expertly developed, but near and dear to the hearts of those who work with children.

A few people here and there have questioned whether the character development is strong enough in this book. I would argue that Zach, Poppy, and Alice are purposefully left just a tad vague in order to represent every child on the cusp of leaving childhood fantasy and play behind to join the ranks of the teenagers.  It would seem easy for readers, both child and adult, to see themselves in one of the the three and to think of their own adventures, both real and imaginary. It surely was for me.

Doll Bones is set in contemporary times, but no specific year or decade is mentioned. Zach is said to play video games, and Poppy’s mother watches Antiques Roadshow so readers can tell it is not too far in the past. Very notable is the absence of cell phones in these middle schoolers’ lives. The story wouldn’t work if Zach’s mother was able to use his phone’s GPS tracker or if Alice’s grandmother kept texting her to keep tabs on her.

This reminds me of the John Cusack movie The Ice Harvest. (If you haven’t seen it, it is pretty mediocre, but it proves a point). Cusack’s character is a lawyer for the mob who steals $2 million from his employers. He breaks his cell phone in a Wichita parking lot at the beginning of the movie and has to drive everywhere to communicate with a number of people on his way out of town. A wild amount of problems ensue. If I remember correctly, director Harold Ramis mentions in the commentary that the whole movie just wouldn’t work if Cusack had had a cell phone–so he had to get rid of it somehow. The same is true of Doll Bones.

Past Newbery winning books are not about modern kids doing things like playing Minecraft, watching YouTube, and “checking in.” They are timeless books. The same is true of Doll Bones.

Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me won the Newbery in 2010. I remember enjoying that book immensely, but I also know that it is not everyone’s cup of tea. When it won, there were grumblings about how the committee was probably really impressed by the part past Newbery winner A Wrinkle in Time played in that book and that reading was such an important part of it. That doesn’t mean the book is any less deserving, it just means that the committee members can’t “turn off” that they are (primarily) librarians who value the things that librarians value. Doll Bones has the potential to appeal to this new committee in much the same way. Black celebrates children’s imagination, creativity, and willingness to believe. And even though there are undoubtedly many great books to come this year, I believe Doll Bones is a definite contender.

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