Study Guide

Doll Bones Themes

By Holly Black

  • Abandonment

    Zach, Alice, and Poppy live in an unstable world where adults often go missing, and they've each suffered a lot of loss in their young lives. Zach was abandoned by his dad, who left his family for three years before he returned home; Alice was abandoned by her parents, who are dead; and Poppy was abandoned by her folks, too, when they sort of checked out of the whole parenting thing. Beyond exploring personal loss, though, Doll Bones also asks big questions about what happens when you abandon your childhood. It ain't easy, and there are bummers aplenty in this book.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Zach, Alice, and Poppy have each been abandoned by members of their families. Who seems to struggle most with that abandonment? Why? What is different about them as a character or about the way/s in which they have experienced abandonment?
    2. Zach has lingering resentment toward his father for leaving the family. Do you think he treats his dad fairly when they fight? Why or why not? Prove it with evidence from the text.
    3. Which do you think haunts the characters more, the abandonment they have experienced or their fear of being abandoned again? Explain your answer and be sure to bust out some quotations from the book.

    Chew on This

    Zach, Alice, and Poppy's problems at home turn them each into jerks in their own ways.

    Zach, Alice, and Poppy manage to build solid, caring relationships with one another despite all their problems at home.

  • Friendship

    In a world with so many absent adults, Zach, Alice, and Poppy rely on one another for companionship and comfort. But their friendships are tested over the course of Doll Bones. For one, during their adventure, they really get on each other's nerves (like, a lot). More broadly, as they get older, they're experiencing a lot of personal changes that impact their relationships with each other. Zach and Alice's friendship in particular seems on the precipice of change; by the end of the book, they're planning a date. Meanwhile, Poppy already feels like a third wheel. These three might need each other, but that doesn't mean sticking together will always be easy.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Do you think Zach, Alice, and Poppy's friendships weaken or strengthen over the course of the book? Explain your reasoning using examples from the book.
    2. The three friends betray each other often. Which betrayal do you think is worst? Why? What role does betrayal in general play in their friendship dynamic?
    3. Who would you most want to be friends with—Zach, Alice, or Poppy? Why? What makes them the ultimate friend material?

    Chew on This

    Zach, Alice, and Poppy will inevitably drift apart as they get older. In fact, they already are by the time the book ends.

    Zach, Alice, and Poppy will remain friends forever. Sure, they'll have to adjust as they age, but they're more family than friends at this point, and nothing will truly change that.

  • Men and Masculinity

    At age twelve, Zach is walking the line between boyhood and the realm of manly men. He feels a lot of pressure from his father to be a certain kind of guy in Doll Bones. See, his pops doesn't approve of Zach doing "childish" stuff like playing with toys and girls, and instead prefers for Zach to play stereotypically masculine games like basketball.

    During Zach's quest with Alice and Poppy, he is haunted by his father's pressure to conform to a certain type of masculinity. He thinks he should be the girls' protector… but he doesn't really fulfill that role so well. If anything, he heightens the danger they're in by doing rash things like stealing a boat he doesn't know how to operate. Importantly, it's when Zach allows himself to behave in ways that are traditionally labeled as feminine—particularly crying—that he finally comes to terms with the trauma of losing his toys.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Do you think that Zach will be like his father when he grows up? Why or why not? How is he already similar and different to him?
    2. What might have been changed if Zach's fights with his father were written from his father's point of view? In fact, go ahead and rewrite one of their fights from his dad's point of view and explain why you made the decisions you did.
    3. Do you think that Zach's relationship with his father will improve over time? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Doll Bones explores the limits of gender norms.

    The single most important relationship in Doll Bones is the one between Zach and his dad.

  • Mortality

    In Doll Bones, Zach, Alice, and Poppy see dead people. Or Zach and Poppy do in the dreams they have about Eleanor Kerchner. Whether or not Eleanor is really a ghost, though, we know she's a real girl who died. Also dead? Alice's parents, whose absence haunts her much more than any ghost ever could. Throughout the book, there are many images of decay if you keep an eye out, and the final scene takes place in an actual graveyard. When the trio digs a grave and lays the Queen to rest, they're symbolically burying their childhoods and stepping into young adulthood, and in this moment, we see just how close life and death truly are.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. In what ways has Alice been impacted by the death of her parents? Think about her relationships, her personality, and more.
    2. Why is Zach so devastated by the "death" of his toys when his father throws them away?
    3. Do you find the final scene in the graveyard frightening? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Doll Bones might be creepy, but ultimately the book argues that death is simply part of life—nothing terrifying about it.

    Doll Bones is about coming to terms with the inevitability of death. After all, death clears space for something new to emerge.

  • The Supernatural

    In many ways, Doll Bones is a ghost story, and the tension of whether or not ghosts are real helps drive the plot. For every strange and spooky thing that happens, there are two interpretations—one that's supernatural, and one that's mundane. Is the Queen really possessed by the spirit of a dead girl? Maybe, maybe not; there's a chance that Poppy made the whole story up based on something she read. There's only one thing we know for sure: That doll is really dang creepy.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Many incidents in the story suggest that ghosts are real. Which one did you find the most convincing? Which one seemed the most like a sham or a coincidence? Compare and contrast these moments in the text.
    2. Alice goes back and forth about whether or not she believes that the Queen is possessed by the ghost of Eleanor Kerchner. By the end of the book, do you think she's convinced? Why or why not?
    3. Let's say the ghost of Eleanor is real. Do you think she's a sympathetic character? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    There's a strong supernatural force at work in the world of Doll Bones—the story just doesn't make sense otherwise.

    In Doll Bones, all the supernatural elements are the product of the kids' imaginations—there is no such thing as ghosts.

  • Coming of Age/Identity

    Doll Bones is a coming-of-age story, and as the characters try to figure out who they are, they mature and leave childhood behind. At the beginning of the book, Zach, Alice, and Poppy use toys to explore who they are, but by the end of the book, having completed their quest, this trio no longer needs toys anymore; they have established their own identities as adolescents. Burying the Queen is symbolic of these three leaving their childhoods behind (more on this in the "Symbols" section). Uh, and hopefully that pesky ghost will stop bothering them, too.

    Questions About Coming of Age/Identity

    1. Which character do you think changes the most by the end of the book? Why this character instead of the others? How do they change?
    2. Over the course of the story, Zach takes on aspects of his favorite toy, William the Blade, and Alice "becomes" Lady Jaye. Does that make Poppy a villain in real life? Explain your answer.
    3. Which character do you relate to most—Zach, Alice, or Poppy? Why?

    Chew on This

    In Doll Bones, growing up is like a form of death. Getting older is a huge bummer.

    In Doll Bones, growing up doesn't mean losing yourself. Some things change, sure, but you're still you at the end of the day.

  • Exploration

    Kids explore the world and their place in it through play. The intricately imagined game that Zach, Poppy, and Alice have been playing after school in Doll Bones has given them a way to try on different identities, test boundaries, and build relationships. Through a weird series of twists and turns, that game spills out into the real world. Out in the wild, the trio finds that they've internalized many aspects of their favorite characters—or maybe those characters were inside them all along.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. How does playing with toys prepare Zach, Alice, and Poppy for a real-life adventure? Does it actually, or do they just think it has?
    2. If you were the fourth person in Zach, Alice, and Poppy's gang, do you think you'd feel more excited or scared on this quest? Why?
    3. Who seems more closely connected to their toy persona, Zach or Alice? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Zach, Alice, and Poppy explore their personal identities through toys and role-playing.

    Zach, Alice, and Poppy explore the external world through toys and role-playing.

  • Change

    On the cusp of adolescence, the prospect of change seems both scary and exciting for our friends Zach, Alice, and Poppy in Doll Bones. Poppy talks about growing up as a death; Zach seems more open to its possibilities; and all three kids are worried about how growing up will affect their lives and their friendships. Oh, and their bodies—Zach in particular seems to marvel at how much he's grown, and sometimes he barely recognizes himself in the mirror. So it goes when you're twelve.

    Questions About Change

    1. Of the three main characters, Poppy seems to fear change the most. Why is this? Turn to the text for clues.
    2. Who do you think changes the most by the end of the book? Why? Explain your answer using evidence from the book.
    3. How do you think the quest will change Zach, Alice, and Poppy? We're talking individually and as a friend group. Don't hesitate to bust out some evidence from the book to support your claims.

    Chew on This

    Doll Bones depicts change as a positive force.

    Doll Bones depicts change as a negative force.