Zach, 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
Holly Black is one of my favorite YA/MG authors ever. I’ve loved everything I’ve read of hers, from the Modern Faerie Tales to the Curse Workers to the Spiderwick Chronicles, and I’ve had this one on my list since it came out. I love how Black blends the creepy and the funny. She’s a master at that kind of thing. I mean, there’s a cat named “The Party.” Come on! So we start with Alice, Poppy, and Zach. Alice lives with her overprotective grandmother, Alice lives with her seemingly neglectful parents and wild siblings, and Zach lives with his parents, though his father has just moved back home after three years away. Each of these environments offers problems and hardships for the kids, but their friendship is strong and based on a love of make believe and play. Until Zach’s father throws away all his action figures, sending Zach into a spiral of rage and despair. He can’t think of any other way to deal with it than to stop playing with Alice and Poppy. Since Zach is only twelve, he can be forgiven these terrible coping skills. Soon, though, he’s pulled back in when something happens with the china doll they call The Queen.
The ghost of a little girl named Eleanor visits Poppy, imploring her to bury the girl’s bones, threatening her with a curse if she doesn’t. The kids decide to travel to Ohio to do so. As a mom, this would freak me the hell out. No kid of mine is traveling to another state on a bus by themselves. Of course, they don’t tell anyone where they’re going.
This book, despite being superficially about a quest and spooky dolls, is really a coming of age story. Alice is the most mature of the three and has gone through the most. She is the most aware of her feelings, actions, and intentions. Poppy is the most immature. She isn’t good with change and she’s easily angered. Zach falls somewhere in between them. These kids are learning about life and hardship and love and death. That’s what the story is about, not some doll or some ghost. Holly Black is SO GOOD at incorporating these elements into her stories, and the flow is just so smooth and normal. It feels like you’re watching it happen in real-time. This is why I love her so much and have read literally everything she’s written.