Middle Grade Magic and Two Triumphant Trios

Okay, so the title is a bit scattered, but the alliteration was too fun to not use.

Anyway, the gist, as you may have guessed, is that lately I’ve been reading some middle grade novels *shock* *gasp* *gentle swoon*, and obviously I have liked them enough to blog about them. They’re just so enthusiastically, earnestly magical. Everything is new and exciting- and even though we’ve read similar fantasy set-ups before, the narration in each of the two books is compelling enough that we are moved by the shiny newness.

Of course the books offer much more- I mean, we wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. So, I think I will get right to it with Doll Bones written by Holly Black and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.


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 … – [X]

I cannot believe I haven’t read anything by Holly Black before! (Does it count if she co-edited/curated my favourite anthology?) I picked the book up and I couldn’t put it down, which was a feat given that I was acting tour guide for some visiting family. (I may have some kind of Creepy Doll Story addiction.) Doll Bones was something special.

The thing about Doll Bones is that it makes an interesting narrative decision. The protagonist is the boy, Zach. And now you may think, “Oh, a boy protagonist. How marvellously exception, Yash.” And I guess in a way you’d be right to be skeptical. But personally, I enjoyed that a story that is all about playing with dolls is focused on a boy. Arguably, Alice and Poppy are prominent players, catalysts to the adventure even, but it is Zach’s ongoing internal conflict of what is the “correct” expression of masculinity that interests me. The entire quest is a form of defiance for Zach and I loved seeing that develop alongside the mounting action. I also appreciate that Alice and Poppy will have none of his angsty nonsense. If he’s said something mean, those girls fight right back-

“The Queen,” Zach said unsteadily, forcing a sneer into his voice to cover his rising fear. “So what? You brought me all the way out here to see a doll?”

“Just listen,” Alice said. “Try not to be the huge jerk you’ve turned into.”

– Page 62, Doll Bones.

So, while Zach may be the choice (third person) narrator, Alice and Poppy are anything but sidekicks. Alice is an interesting mix of cautious, thoughtful, and reckless, while Poppy is a girl who is enthusiastic about storytelling to the point of being a tad psychotic overbearing. (She’s the girl who plays the villains and revels in it. She’s the one that the Queen visits the first. She’s the powerful, unavoidable call to adventure. I kind of adore Poppy. I am a one-woman Poppy fan club.) The three of them embark on- what seems to be on the surface- a completely mundane adventure. They run away from home. Briefly. They encounter issues like creepy men who leer at the girls, they lose their food, lose their money and supplies, and eventually lose faith in one another too. But then, every time Zach or Alice doubt the quest (Poppy obviously believes in it 100%), the Queen makes herself known in some rather subtle ways- which is what transforms those decidedly non-magical moments and makes the book so deliciously creepy.

I believe that if there ever was a story that could battle the notion that stories and play are for children alone, it would be this one.

The second book I want to talk about is Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact written by A. J. Hartley and illustrated by Emily Osborne.


Darwen Arkwright thought that his new life in Atlanta would consist of constricting school uniforms, poorly made tea, and American classmates mocking his distinctly un-posh Northern English accent.

But that was before he met wizened, old Mr. Peregrine. And before Mr. Peregrine gave him a gift: an antique mirror, tarnished at the edges and bursting with secrets … – [Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact]

You know, in one of the upcoming Top Tens, I am pretty sure I mentioned something about wanting a Chosen One story with a character of colour. And the universe has delivered! Our protagonist’s mother was black and his father was white. But you don’t actually need to be told, though, do you? If the protagonist is not pictured on the cover, or indeed pictured as a silhouette, chances are they are a character of colour. It happens more often than not. But then! You catch sight of the little manic girl on the right, and you think, “There may be hope yet.” (And you were totally right. Alexandra, “defender of men”, is the best thing to happen to Darwen’s life. More on that later!)

Unlike the trio in Doll Bones, Darwen’s story starts off as a solitary one and the process by which he gains friends is so fun to read. Alex, like Poppy from Doll Bones can be a bit much, but she can also be kind and generous and smart and brave and extremely resourceful. Ugh. Can I just have a book with her as the protagonist? Anyway, the third member of this adventurous trio is Rich, who is built to be the mean jock, but turns out to be the soft-spoken nerd who loves it when history and science works together. Together they defy stereotypes and take it upon themselves to save their world (and other ones too). It’s pretty awesome. I don’t want to give away much, so I’ll avoid talking about the plot.

The thing I do want to talk about is how race works in this novel. Almost immediately after the story begins, Darwen is accused of stealing, he is teased about being a “stray”, is asked where his parents are “really from”, and is accused of stealing for a second time towards the end. Basically, people treat him with prejudice, if not explicit racism and that was interesting for me to read. I did not expect Hartley to place so much attention on these details, but I am glad he did. It makes the ultimate theme of belonging so much harder to contend with and so much more poignant.

Kind of related, there is a moment when Rich and Darwen are digging at school grounds, looking for remnants of the massacre of Lower Creek Indians, and the principal is pretty clear that he does not care about what happened in the past, and that they should look to the present and the future. (He refuses to fund the Archaeology Club.) But once more, this struggle between colonizer and colonized becomes vital to how the secondary fantasy world is presented to Darwen who, through Rich, gains an appreciation for how tangibly the past can affect the present and future. It fits then that Darwen is the liaison between the primary world and the secondary one. My one qualm is that sometimes when the teachers or the students talk about the indigenous people of various places, they talk about them in a way that reads (to me) almost historic, where the voice of the indigenous people seems lost and near-mythical. On the plus side, holy crap, this novel has so much diversity it makes me so happy. I am pretty sure that out of all the named characters, the characters of colour actually might (almost?) outnumber the white characters. Imagine that.

As for the fantasy part, well, what can I say? Instead of dolls, it has mirrors. Equally creepy. Definitely more graphic, but still not scary enough to ruin the experience of being immersed in secondary world. Just like Doll Bones, this novel has a great marriage between the representations of the fantastic in the “real” world, and the other way around. It works wonderfully. It was a real treat to read these two books side by side.

6 responses to “Middle Grade Magic and Two Triumphant Trios

  1. A lovely in-depth and enticing review, Yash. As usual, you convince me to read whatever you write about. Please don’t stop unearthing fascinating books and shoving them in front of my nose.

    • Okay, so Doll Bones is nowhere near as creepy as something like Coraline (in case you are trying to gauge how scary the book is), but it is still creepy enough that you are hooked. Holly Black has, in my opinion, struck a good balance with Doll Bones. Especially for readers who like sleeping at night. ^_^

      Thanks for the nice comment! I hope you enjoy whichever book you end up picking!

  2. I’ve read Doll Bones, but i was kind of disappointed as I was expecting it to be scarier and I didn’t quite the understand what was real and what was the game (maybe that was the point though?). I felt that it was annoying that I wasn’t given a proper explanation and I wasn’t satisfied with the ending. On the other hand, it was well written and I loved the characters. I agree that it the fact that the main character was a boy was a nice change, and I particularly loved the beginning of the book where it talks about the game that they used to play. It was a better adventure story than anything but I didn’t mind. Another thing I loved was the fact that everyone else could see ‘The Queen’ as an ordinary girl.

    • You know what, I totally get that it wasn’t scary enough. But I think that’s fine for some readers. If someone wanted something scarier, well, I would point them in the direction of Coraline! :)

      As for the reality/fantasy ambiguity, I actually kind of liked it. The confusion is what made it scarier. Besides, the book was all about how important imagination and make-believe is, and how real it can be in the minds of onlookers … I don’t know if there would have been a better way to explore that theme. Plus, it created some friction between the group which is good. I feel like friendships are forged stronger under strain. I like reading that. Of course, that’s just me. ^_^

      Thank you for leaving a comment! I’m glad there were parts of it you still enjoyed!

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