I would imagine that coming-of-age stories are hard to write. (They’re certainly usually drudgery to read, if my memories of being subjected to Across Five Aprils and A Separate Peace are any guide.) Hitting the right balance of plot, developing hormones, and setting in order to be interested to those who are almost of-age and who have come-of-age is a challenge. Doing so in a way that avoids inappropriate sex, violence, profanity, etc, is especially a vanishing art these days. Fortunately, Holly Black’s Doll Bones has hit this balance very well.
The story centers around Zach, Poppy, and Alice, who have been role playing an imaginative game with action figures for the past few years. But now Zach is starting to wonder about a lot of things: is he too old to be playing with dolls? Is he maybe interested in Alice as more than just a friend? What will his friends on the basketball team think about all this?
In the middle of their game and these questions, two tragedies strike: Zach’s father throws away his action figures, and the antique doll in Poppy’s parents’ display case begins haunting Poppy’s dreams and insisting that she contains the remains of a real girl who must be buried in order to rest. Zach, Alice, and Poppy set off on one last “game,” that might have very, very, real consequences if they fail to win it.
In some ways, I think that is the most interesting part of the book. Some young adult books just rub the supernatural right in our faces and a la X-Files insist that anyone who rejects it must be intentionally ignorant or one of the bad guys. Other young adult books utterly reject it and insist that anyone who believes in it must be trying to control us. Doll Bones does what real life does–it leaves the children in the book to make their own decision based on partial evidence. Because the fact is, we do have evidence that there is another world out there. It may not be the kind of evidence we always want. It may not be satisfying to the demands of some. But that is not to say that there is no evidence at all. What Zach has is what we all have on some level: the testimony of someone else, a personal experience of some sort, and external corroboration that may or may not be convincing to himself or to others.
In the same way, as Christians we believe what we believe because someone else told us about the Gospel, we processed that internally and, if we are believers, were convicted and brought to repent by the Holy Spirit, and see evidence of this (but maybe not compelling evidence all the time to ourselves or at all to others) outside of ourselves in Scriptures, in history, and in nature.
In other words, Doll Bones is a fine enough story with a surprisingly subtle and nuanced take on the supernatural that does a good job portraying one of the biggest challenges of becoming an adult without hitting the pitfalls that other young adult books fall into.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO