Holly Black (the Curse Workers series) breaks new ground with this tale of a haunted doll that acts as a catalyst in a friendship between three 12-year-olds. The author captures the moment when a child crosses the threshold into adolescence--when boy-girl friendships come into question and imaginative games come under fire.
Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends since they were small. Poppy used to ride her bike past Zach's house, and befriended Alice at a carnival. Zach is the first of the three to outwardly show signs of maturing. He shoots up physically and feels torn between continuing the role-playing games he enjoys with Poppy and Alice, and the ridicule he'd receive from his basketball teammates if they ever found out. Together, the three use action figures to create elaborate story lines. Zach's favorite is William the Blade, pirate captain of the Neptune's Pearl. Alice's Lady Jaye is "loud and wild, almost nothing like Alice," who acquiesces to her grandmother's overprotection. Poppy, as ringleader, often sets the story lines. One doll, the Queen, scares them. Polly's mother keeps her in a locked glass case. The Queen is "a bone china doll of a child with straw-gold curls and paper-white skin."
One day, while Zach is at school, his father throws out his toys. Tension between them escalates, and Zach contemplates running away. He cuts off ties with Alice and Poppy rather than tell them the truth--that William the Blade is gone and the game is over. Then the Queen starts talking to Poppy, explaining that she's a girl whose ashes are trapped inside the doll and who longs to be buried in a cemetery a bus ride away. The three sneak away to fulfill the ghost girl's wish, and they are forever changed by their quest.
This is realistic, contemporary fiction for middle graders with gothic overtones. It's as psychologically haunting as the ghost girl's physical haunting. Holly Black taps into the children's feelings of being pulled in several directions at once--questioning what they thought they knew of their families, their friends and themselves. They go from playing by the rules to making them up as they go along. The author also reveals the damaging effect of keeping a secret. Zach says, "[I]t seemed as though not telling Poppy and Alice what had happened to his action figures or why he didn't want to play made it hard to tell about other things, too." Black demonstrates how the children growing up also plays into the adults' fears. As her eyesight diminishes, Alice's grandmother exerts control over her grandchild; Zach's father is afraid his son will be just like him.
Black begins with an ordinary experience of childhood and gives it a wicked twist to reveal the truth at the center of the impulse for storytelling. --Jennifer M. Brown
Shelf Talker: In Holly Black's contemporary story with gothic overtones, a haunted doll acts as a catalyst in a friendship between three 12-year-olds.