Doll Bones

Jacket• Grade Range: 5th-8th
• Mystery/Coming of age
• Author: Holly Black and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
• Title: Doll Bones
• Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
• 2013
• 247 pages.
• ISBN: 9781416963981
• Awards: Newbery Honor, Carnegie medal in literature nominee
• Author’s website:


Zach, Alice and Poppy have been friends for years. Their imaginary adventure game has evolved as each kid contributes plot and action ideas and creates their doll or action figure’s roles. As they enter adolescence all three are aware of the strains conformist expectations place on their unconventional cross-gender friendship and make-believe play, but it is only when Zachary’s father inserts himself into the game that a rift is created. Poppy’s effort to mount one last adventure leads the three into an ambitious and eerie quest to lay to rest a troubled spirit trapped inside a spooky, and possibly malevolent, bone china doll.

We have a joke in our library, especially when weeding, that ‘destined to be a classic’ means ‘never will be read.’ Doll Bones with its strong writing, appealing characters and astute feel for the pain and anger engendered by letting go of childhood, may be the exception that proves the rule. Like all great thrillers it magnifies the psychological pull of ordinary feelings and exposes just what we hope never to openly acknowledge. Zach’s growth, sports prowess and meddling dad push him unwillingly into tweendom. His impotent anger at being forced to let go of something that still matters to him causes him to imitate the dad whose behavior he so despises; he buries his feelings and flees, convincing himself that “growing up means most stories turn out to be lies.” The friends’ struggle-to keep some honesty alive in their relationship, combined with the ghost doll’s creepy influence, push Zach, Alice and Poppy past childlike dependence into an awareness of the freedom that comes from taking responsibility for their beliefs.

While many reviews and most trailers, including mine, focus on the spooky elements, the book’s strength and heart are really about friendship and growing up. This is a smart, timeless story.

West of the Moon

Jacket-3• Historical folk/fantasy fiction
• Age Range: Grades 5-9
• Author: Margi Preus
• Title: West of the Moon
• Publisher: New York: Amulet
• 04/2014
• 288 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-4197-0896-1
• Awards: None yet, though this is my pick for the Newbery.

When thirteen year-old Astri’s Aunt trades her to an old humpbacked goat herder for two silver pieces and a goat haunch, Astri vows to be stronger and meaner than he is, so that she can survive her servitude, rescue her younger sister Greta from her aunt and emigrate to America to reunite with their father.

Preus’s masterful novel weaves together Norwegian folktales and a powerful story of a young girl’s heroic determination to do more than survive. Astri is a storyteller in a culture rife with superstition; chapters often begin with legends that parallel and inform the action. Equally as successful as Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little Brown, 2009), this tale is darker and more mature.

Though Astri tells stories of rescue and transformation to comfort herself and others, she is very aware that if anyone is going to do any rescuing, it is going to have to be her. The decisions she makes to survive come to haunt her and she struggles to reconcile herself to desperate actions. Fast paced, vibrant, and gripping: Preus has created an enthralling, unflinching and unforgettable story inspired by a passage from her great-great grandmother’s diary. Reviewed from an ARC.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

Jacket-5• Grade Range: 6th-adult
• Adventure related title
• Author: Jennifer Armstrong
• Title: Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World
• Publisher: New York, Crown
• 1998
• 134 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-375-40403-1
• Awards: 1999 Orbis Pictus winner ~1999 Boston Globe Horn Book Honor in nonfiction~ALA Best Book for YAs~1999 Riverbank Review Children’s Books of Distinction
• Author’s website:

In 1914, at the dawn of World War I, Ernest Shackleton was one of the most famous and most famously disappointed explores in the world. He had just missed being the first to reach the South Pole. Three years after that historic event he and twenty-seven men set sail for Antarctica, intent on being the first to cross the continent. An unusually cold Antarctic summer thwarted their hopes and tested their endurance, ingenuity and bravery beyond the bounds of human imagination.

Armstrong frames this remarkable story with appropriate and relevant historic, factual and scientific information. In a few economic paragraphs readers learn structurally why Antarctica is the most hostile place on earth and why it is also one of the most fertile ecosystems in the world. Armstrong incorporates a multitude of quotes, primary documents and stunning archival photographs, painting a vivid picture of a truly astonishing adventure. From the point at which the ice crushes Shackleton’s ship the story becomes extremely gripping. The pace of disasters and escapes surpasses the best of Indiana Jones or the Die Hard franchise and the reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World is more suitable to a slightly younger reader than the previously reviewed The Endurance. Armstrong doesn’t rely as heavily on journal entries and summarizes points Alexander makes through multiple examples. Armstrong focuses on the dramatic moments, and there are many, and her writing is slightly more lyrical in her descriptions of wildlife. She doesn’t focus as much on the personal relationships among the crew: avoiding their dislikes, making this book better suited for a reader who wants the facts, the adventure and the hardships without as much in-depth information on the characters. In both books Shackleton’s leadership comes through and the reader is left amazed at what humans can endure and overcome. Particularly intriguing is the moment where the normally cautious Shackleton risks all on a slide down a mountain into the unknown. Using dialogue, Armstrong lets readers watch as the unthinkable becomes the only possible choice.

There are two other topics missing from Armstrong’s book that are included by Alexander: Hurley’s fudged photograph-Saved and the singular unhelpfulness of the British in the final rescue effort. We learn in Alexander’s book that Hurley deliberately removed The James Caird: the boat the six men sailed to South Georgia island in, from an image taken as the men wave good luck to the departing rescuers. On the lecture circuit Hurley and Shackleton represented the doctored photo as capturing the moment the men see a boat returning to rescue them, duplicitously titling the image Saved. Armstrong includes the photo with its misleading title as if it actually did show the rescue. Armstrong also avoids going into detail about Shakleton’s struggles to find a boat and return to his marooned men. In the midst of a war the British were indifferent to their plight and Shackleton had to rely on Chileans and Argentines to effect a rescue. Both omissions simplify the ending.

Front matter: A photograph of the Endurance stuck in the ice is on the title page. A Contents page is followed by a labeled photograph of most of the crew at the outset of the journey. All the members of the team: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, are listed on the facing page. Two pages of original drawings and plans of the Endurance are included as is a map of Antarctica and a close up map of Shackleton’s journey. Perhaps the best epigram of all time wraps up the front matter: “For scientific discovery, give me Scott. For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” Apsley Cherry-Garrand, polar explorer, 1922.

Back Matter: A brief Epilogue mentions that most of the men joined the war after their return and some were killed in action. Shackleton’s time during the war and final journey to South Georgia Island are discussed and his death and burial on the island is briefly described. A verse from one of Shackleton’s favorite school songs ends the Epilogue. Acknowledgements note the most useful materials and assistance in the writing of the book. A bibliography is divided roughly by topic: Antarctica, Shackleton, and Periodicals. An index and brief author biography conclude the book.