Sunday, January 26, 2014

Growing pains

As is my wont, I do occasionally go on and on. In 2013 I experienced blowback from a loss of reading mojo, unable to face much reading of the books for the youth. Of the very few books for young people that I read last year, pretty much all of them were audiobooks. Oddly, I'm planning on waking at the crack of dawn tomorrow to catch the children's books "Oscars," or -- as I call them -- the Sumacs (because they now go by the acronym YMA [youth media awards]), because -- as is also my wont -- I am hoping to overcome my problem with a PLAN: Get my mojo back by reading all of them (and listening to all that I can of course ... including the Odyssey winners, natch).

Those who indulge in speculation about the winners put Holly Black's Doll Bones in contention. While I found this (as I do most of Black's books) very enjoyable, it does not scream (or even whisper) Newbery. [Edited to add: Question: well, what do I know? Answer: nothing!] Doll Bones introduces us to three tweens -- Zach, Poppy and Alice. Playing with dolls is what these friends do together, but it's not a tea party these dolls are engaged in. Instead it's an ongoing, wild and magical adventure straight from their imaginations, presided over by the Queen, an antique bone-china doll sitting safely -- but malevolently -- behind glass at Poppy's house. But, at 12, it's sometimes hard to keep up with the saga along with all the other things that are going on in their lives. Things come to a head when Zach returns home from school one day to find that his father -- long estranged from his family, but now back living with them -- has thrown his dolls (really, they're "action figures") away: Zach's too old, playing that way is too girly.

Zach is devastated, but for some reason he can't explain what happened to the two girls, so he just announces to them that he's done playing. Poppy insists that they need to do one more thing before they put the game to rest: Take the Queen to a graveyard in Ohio and bury her. Poppy believes that the doll's china parts were made of the bones of a little girl who died a century ago; she believes this because the Queen has started to haunt her dreams. Loyally, her friends agree to help and the kids hop on a bus at 2 a.m. figuring they'll be back in time for dinner that evening. Instead they are off on an adventure that begins to eerily resemble their made-up saga.

This is one of those books that you read as an adult and wonder what the heck these kids were thinking! And at the same time, it's so enjoyably a kids' story -- with their ridiculous belief in what they are doing and the rightness of how they are doing it.  There's suspense and horror, but it's on a perfect kid scale.  The Queen is actually one authentically scary doll, who appears to be possessed. Black's underlying message -- which is voiced rather clunkily at one point by Poppy -- that the games and friendships of childhood aren't the same as those of teens is touching. There's even a pink-haired librarian, but she's actually kind of a drag.

The reliable teen-age-channeler Nick Podehl narrates here. The story is from Zach's viewpoint and Podehl does a good job of honoring the youth of the three adventurers, without sounding young. Each of the three has a unique voice that Podehl uses consistently, and when the trio is involved in their play, each character adopts a heightened theatricality. The difference between the two girls -- sensible Alice and excitable Poppy -- is particularly good.

Podehl can build the story's considerable suspense with a varied pace and vocal tension. There are a few adult characters that are memorable, including that unimaginative librarian and the frightening Tin-Shoe Joe, a drunk the kids encounter on their late-night bus trip. I liked listening to this, as the whole novel has the feel of a ghost story, and so I could imagine several nights around the campfire as your favorite counselor Nick strings out the tale.

Black's 2013 novel for teenagers, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, was named by Booklist as the "top of the list" of audiobooks for youth last year. I've enjoyed all of Black's books (and I've listened to six of them!), so it's easy to add this one to the listening pile.

[Eliza Wheeler provided spot illustrations in Doll Bones, and this illustration of the three adventurers was retrieved from her website.]

Doll Bones by Holly Black
Narrated by Nick Podehl
Listening Library, 2013.  5:12

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