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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Doll Bones explores the limits of gender norms.
The single most important relationship in Doll Bones is the one between Zach and his dad.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Doll Bones depicts change as a positive force.
Doll Bones depicts change as a negative force.