DiTerlizzi and while I have seen some of her graphic novels, I haven't seen a middle grade book in a long time. This one is terrific. I can see why it is on Newbery lists as a contender this year.
Twelve-year-old Zach, Alice, and Poppy have created an imaginary world for years using action figures and dolls. Their swashbuckling pirate adventures are pretty elaborate with Poppy usually playing the villain, Zach the pirate, and Alice his crazy, loud sidekick. When Zach's dad tosses out his action figures because he thinks Zach shouldn't be playing with dolls, Zach is so upset he can't talk about it. When he tells Alice and Poppy he isn't going to play "the game" anymore they can't understand why. Poppy gets so upset that she takes her mother's forbidden antique doll from the case. This creepy doll is the Queen in their pretend play and everything done is meant to please her. The doll is haunted by a ghost who tells the three that they must bury her or terrible things will happen. They take off on an adventure to not only bury the Queen doll, but say, "Goodbye," to their childhood games. The intricate plot between the imaginary play and real life events and relationships of the three make this a fascinating read.
I want to explore this book more in depth than creating a surface review so this is your spoiler alert. Stop here if you don't want to know the plot.
We first meet Zachary, Alice, and Poppy where they are pretending the pirate, William the Blade, is on a quest to find who his father is on the high seas. This reflects Zach's real life where his dad left their family three years ago in pursuit of a dream to own a business that didn't come true and left him bitter and angry. Zach is not happy that his dad moved back home. He isn't sure he wants to claim him as a father. Alice's parents died and she lives with an overprotective, smothering grandmother who won't even let her choose what clothes to wear. In the pirate game, Alice plays her alterego GI Joe Lady Jaye, who does as she pleases. Lady Jaye steals from everyone and gets mad at Poppy who likes to improvise and dominate the storyline. Poppy is fierce and dramatic which makes her good at playing the villains. Poppy (which means friendship) doesn't want her friends to change and desperately tries to keep their pretend game going to the point of making up, or not, the ghost haunting the doll. William the Blade, who rescues Lady Jaye and is the hero mirrors Alice's crush on the unbeknownst Zach that she wants to date. In the beginning of the story, the mermaid (played by Poppy) asks for a sacrifice to cross the sea and grabs Lady Jaye (played by Alice). When Alice says that Poppy can't just change the rules and grab her it foreshadows the sacrifices the three will face on their quest to bury a doll. Poppy sacrifices her friends by letting them not play the game. Alice sacrifices being grounded by her grandma for the rest of her life. And Zach sacrifices not playing the game anymore because his dad destroyed his action figures.
There are so many layers to this book I can't possibly write them all but I'll try to touch on a few. The peer pressure and its affect on friendships is shown in Poppy's older brothers who laugh at Zach when the three are playing at Poppy's house. Zach is also worried about his friends on the basketball team finding out that he plays with the two girls. The game and the sport are important to Zach and he doesn't want to give either up. He talks about the special basketball handshake and says, "... and every time Zach did it, he felt the warm buzz of belonging." The author does a fantastic job showing how the three friends have created a sophisticated game and how it helps them cope with fears and life. For instance, the antique doll they named, "The Queen," is incorporated into the pretend game because she is scary. The Queen is also a symbol of absolute authority which is a reflection on the life of a child who has little say in what he or she does each day.
Another important part of the game is the three friends pass notes to
each other and ask questions directed at characters. Poppy writes William the Blade some questions in a note she
gives to Zach. She asks if William would give up being a pirate? Which is basically the same as asking if Zach would give up the game. Poppy wants to know if William would miss the game. She asks who he thinks his father is which mirrors Zach's struggles with his father currently. The next question asks if William the Blade likes Lady Jaye. Poppy is trying to find out for Alice if Zach likes her. The last question is if William has nightmares. Zach describes William's nightmare of drowning and wanting to be buried at sea. Again some clever foreshadowing occurs through this technique as the next chapter has Zach's dad tossing out William the Blade who ends up buried in a garbage landfill.
Zach doesn't tell Alice and Poppy the real reason he can't play the game. I did wonder why, but it becomes clear at the end that he can't because it hurts too much and he'd be admitting that he can't ever play again. I wished the author had implied this more when Zach first made the decision to not tell the girls. This made that turning point seem a bit contrived, but it didn't bother me too much because I remember as a teenager holding back on friends and not really knowing why. Poppy is so upset he won't play that she pulls the Queen doll out of the case so that Zach will play with them again. When the doll starts to speak to her and say that she is a ghost who was murdered and needs to be buried in a specific grave, the three embark on an adventure that reflects their pretend game. We never really know if Poppy is really seeing a ghost or manipulating her friends. When Zach thinks he dreams about the dead girl it involves an evil
stepmom tossing out her toys and it leaves the reader guessing if the
real quest is helping him deal with his dad's actions or is it a real
ghost? Alice doesn't believe in the ghost because if she did then why hadn't her two dead parents come to talk to her? The author does a great job maintaining this tension and suspense. Other adult characters add to this as they comment on the four of them and refer to the doll as a blond-haired person. Throw in the mystery of how the doll was made and history of the girl's death and you have a fun scary story. Light a candle when you sit down with this one.
All the characters go through an emotional arc but I was pleasantly surprised and pleased with Zach's dad. He's a minor character but it is a good message to kids that adults make mistakes. When Zach's dad first tosses out his toys, Zach's mom is really upset because the dad didn't talk to anyone first. The dad apologizes the next morning but Zach knows that it isn't sincere. Zach reflects on when he was forced to apologize for something he didn't feel sorry about and sees his dad doing the same thing. When Zach runs away with Poppy and Alice and everything goes kerplooey, Zach talks to his dad on the phone. This time, Zach not only gets a sincere apology, he finds the answer to William the Blade's question as to who his father is in the pretend story. In real-life Zach's father is a man who makes mistakes, is willing to admit it, and truly loves his son.
The author captures the age well from the giggling friends at school to the difficulty of changing friendships. Zach says "Sometimes it seemed to him that girls spoke a different language, but he couldn't figure out when they learned it. He was pretty sure that they used to speak the same language a year ago." Later when Poppy and Alice get into a nasty fight it is because Alice wants to stop playing the game and abandon the adventure of burying the doll, but Poppy refuses. Poppy expresses her fear of the three growing up and growing apart. Hanging on to the game means their relationship won't change.
I like the author's homage to storytelling whether intentional or not. Childhood imaginative storytelling has a creative abandonment that can be magical. As people get older their stories change and the magic can be lost such as it is for Zach's dad. The last pretend story I wrote was when I was 13 years old. I read it now and it doesn't make much sense but I am nostalgic for a time when I didn't self-edit my writing and be judgmental. Even now I keep thinking this review is a meandering mess and I should work on it again. Holly Black tells a terrific tale and she says in the notes that this was a story she had wanted to write for a long time. I wonder if when an author finishes the story it feels like a death and the doll being buried is also a symbol of the death of a story. Who knows? I do know I didn't want this tale to end and when I finished I turned around and started rereading it. Something I rarely do. "That was why Zach loved playing those moments where it seemed like he was accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything. It was something he never wanted to give up." Books have become my adult imaginative playground where magic exists and anything is possible.