Friday, June 7, 2013

Childish Things

Holly Black with SLJ's Luann Toth

Holly Black spoke last week at School Library Journal's Day of Dialog. She confessed, "I played with dolls for a looong time. I didn't realize I could keep telling stories without them." This is the dilemma at the core of Doll Bones. When do we "outgrow" dolls and a world of make-believe? When are we too old for the imagination? 

Zach, Poppy and Alice, the three 12-year-old friends at the center of Doll Bones, weave an elaborate world around their dolls and action figures. They are at an age when others might still want to play with dolls, but have squelched that impulse. Their peers have moved on to crushes and sports teams and excelling in school. But the dolls are a launch point to these three friends' imaginations and the glue of their bond. So when Zach's father throws out all of his toys, Zach would rather give up his friends than tell them the truth--or perhaps acknowledge to himself--that the game is over. 

The more I think about this book, the more I think it's really about confronting, even grieving the end of childhood--not only for Zach, Poppy and Alice, but also for the adults who take care of them. Their parents and guardians also have to acknowledge that Zach, Poppy and Alice are not little children anymore.

The fact of Zach keeping from his friends the truth about his action figures creates a chasm between them. The secret grows in weight and strength. Later in the book we discover that Poppy and Alice have been keeping a secret from Zach, too. Black explores the implications of hiding a secret, hiding one's true yearning (to connect with their friends, to continue to explore their imaginations), and allowing someone or something to come between them. The Queen doll (pictured on the cover) becomes both a symbol and a physical manifestation of their fears. 

Doll Bones offers the opportunity to create a conversation with young people about how their friendships can change when they "grow out" of the circle faster than the others, whether or not they have to put away "childish things," and whether that sense of play can be continued in other ways. 

Imagination is essential to everything we do: problem-solving, planning for the future, playing chess or video games (which adults do). It's important that young people recognize all the ways in which we use imagination throughout our lives. Even without Zach's dolls, the three friends find ways to continue their friendship and deepen their connection. What they had to give up was not their imagination, but their secrets.

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