Saturday, August 3, 2013

This Used to be my Playground (Doll Bones by Holly Black Review)

Couch pillows askew 
Batman sheet drapes his shoulders
He's ready to fight villains

When I was in middle school, I used to babysit for M, a precocious little boy with a wild and active imagination. After watching the requisite episode of Arthur or The Magic School Bus, he would launch into an elaborate fantasy game with mysteries that had to be solved, villains (mostly robbers - it was a simpler time) who had to be foiled, and magic that could be used for the powers of good. I played in my role in these pretend scenes and helped him make his vision come to life. Once he remarked that his parents didn't like him to play pretend and thought he should focus on the real world. Even at my young age, I knew they were wrong. To inhibit this drive to explore imagined worlds would deny an essential part of his development. And I confess that these games helped foster my own imaginative play; I created an intricate fantasy world called The Dynasty that I used to sort through my adolescent drama and developed an understanding of narrative that I still use in the stories I write. It may seem counter intuitive, but by pretending, M and I actually dealt with our very real feelings and fears in a safe space where there were no wrong or dangerous choices, just ways of examining our own identities and inner world. We could pretend to walk a mile in someone else's shoes - and then return home for supper. And it would still be hot. 

This was the memory that replayed in my head while reading Doll Bones by Holly Black. Zach, Poppy, and Alice are best friends who share wonderful games of swashbuckling and adventure with their action figures, the pirate, William the Blade and Lady Jaye, a thief.  These games center around the machinations of The Queen, a creepy china doll who lives in Poppy's cabinet. But tragedy strikes our heroes when Zach's father throws away his action figures, which includes William the Blade. Like M's parents, Zach's father believes that Zach is too old for make-believe. Zach's heart is broken by his father's thoughtless decision and it propels him to reject his role in their fantasy play to deal with his pain. As the outside world infringes on their fantasy realm, Poppy reveals that she is being haunted by The Queen, who was created from the bones of a girl who was murdered, and can only rest once she is finally buried in her grave. The lines between fantasy and reality blur as the children embark on a real quest that tests their friendship at the edge of adolescence.

At 12, Zach, Poppy, and Alice are still at an age to embrace adventure and fantasy play, but inevitable changes loom that threaten the realm of childhood. Poppy, in particular, has difficulty accepting these changes, saying, "And I hate that both of you can just walk away and take part of my story with you and not even care...I hate that everyone calls it growing up, but it seems like dying. It feels like each of you is being possessed and I’m next.” Growing up is terrifying - and certainly feels like being possessed by an otherworldly force that makes you do and feel new and sometimes less than pleasant things. It takes an epic quest for Zach, Poppy, and Alice to start the process of sorting through this transition. The children need a space where they can try on new roles, especially when the ability to play is taken from them. My heart broke for Zach when William the Blade was thrown into the garbage. The pirate enabled Zach to feel brave and heroic, to take on an identity where he could sort through his own tangled relationship with his father through William's story. Without William, Zach bottles up his feelings and denies an essential part of himself. Children have so little control of the world around them, but during play, they are the masters of their destinies. During the quest, the children are brave and resilient, using their intelligence and creativity - and excellent research skills (thanks to a fabulous pink-haired librarian), I may say, to solve problems and the mystery of the china doll.

As educators and librarians, we can make our classrooms and libraries into spaces that value imagination and provide opportunities for play and creativity. Wonderful libraries like Evanston Public Library and Skokie Public Library have huge areas set aside for imaginative play, where children can interact in fantasy worlds, create fabulous towers and tools, and engage with their peers and/or caregivers in story-building. These efforts are promoted by professional organizations like ALSC, the Association for Library Service to Children. Play was one of the main topics discussed during the ALSC membership meeting I attended at ALA. They discussed the Read! Build! Play! initiative "designed to develop early literacy skills through play." Sue McCleaf Nespeca shared her white paper outlining the importance of play, especially constructive play. It is an essential resource about developmental and educational underpinnings for play programming in libraries. While it focuses specifically on play in the lives young children, its message can be applied to the experiences of older children and adolescents. Children can use play to take on STEM challenges, to explore and discover ways to solve problems and create tools and machines of their own.  During Evanston Public Library's Teen Loft Fuse program, I have seen young adults come up with novel and creative solutions to hands-on challenges. What started with Legos and blocks as toddlers has turned into robots, circuits, and ringtones as teens. And believe me, the look of joy after creating something wonderful is the same, no matter the age. Inquiry-based programs like Fuse can help children engage in problem solving that is relevant and purposeful. Steven Wolk has developed an incredible resource, Caring Hearts & Critical Minds: Literature, Inquiry, and Social Responsibility, to provide educators with tools for creating inquiring-based units of study based on literature that help shape "human beings with intellectual curiosity as well as caring hearts." Wolk cites Deborah Appleman, saying, that reading in school is “a matter of creating and re-creating fresh and unrehearsed opportunities to make discoveries about texts, about language, about the world, and about themselves.” When children investigate the world through provacative questions that demand critical thinking and collaboration, they gain a deeper understanding of who they are in the process. From examining the right to life and abortion in Neal Shusterman's Unwind to government control and personal freedom in Pete Hautman's Rash, inquiry-based literature helps readers think about what it means to be human. Books help readers develop their own sense of self by experiencing someone elses's life and examining their reactions and emotions in these worlds. Esme Raji Codell made this experience tangible when she created a time travel machine for reading in her classroom in her memoir, Educating Esme. "For the rest of the day, the children took turns in the time machine. So far, nobody has said, 'It's just a box full of books.' " In Madame Esme's classroom and school library learning is more like play, a forum for exploration of things children are passionate about, and education is an act of imagination. Like Madam Esme, we can create spaces where refrigerator boxes can become time machines, where children can be become fearless adventurers, who can reunite ghosts with their loved ones, where children can act out stories without fear of ridicule or judgement. We can show that we value their imaginations and are ready to play.  


Want to continue the conversation? Two Twitter Chats about Doll Bones will be happening this month! 

Virtual Book Club

Niki Ohs Barnes (@daydreamreader) and Beth Panageotou (@epan11) are the hosts of the Virtual Book Club. They will be talking about Doll Bones on Monday, August 5th at 9 p.m. EST/ 8 p.m. CDT on Twitter. Use the hashtage #virtualbookclub to join in.

#Dollbones Twitter Chat 
Alyson Beecher (@alybee930) and Sasha Reinhardt (@MiddleGrdReads) are hosting a Twitter chat about Doll Bones. Here are the details from Alyson's blog. 

Date: Thursday, August 15, 2013
Time: 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m Central, 5 p.m. Pacific- The chat will run for an hour.
Hashtag: #dollbones

To participate in the Twitter chat, simply tweet your comments about Doll Bones using the hashtag #dollbones at the end of each tweet. Don't forget to respond to or Retweet others' comments. (For an example of a fabulous Twitter chat, check out the #sharpschu chat. Just do a search for this hashtag on Twitter and be amazed.) 

Most importantly, Holly Black herself will be participating in the chat. So get your most pressing Doll Bones questions ready for the author herself! 

Find out more about Holly Black by following her at @hollyblack and LiveJournal.

The Importance of Play

ALSC's Read! Build! Play! initiative 

ALSC Play Resources 

Association of Children’s Museums

Institute of Play

An essential read: The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter by Vivian Gussin Paley

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