The Dollhouse Murders

DollhouseMurders

The Dollhouse Murders
Betty Ren Wright
Re-published by Holiday House, 2012 (the edition I read)
Originally published by Scholastic, 1985

There’s always a certain amount of danger when reading a book that you are nostalgic about. Is it worth that risk that it might not live up your memories? And if it doesn’t, can you in good conscience continue to promote it as a personal favorite, one that others should read? The Dollhouse Murders is one of those books that I have very distinct memories of reading and being terrified and thrilled by it. It and Babysitters Club book #2 Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls pretty much made me the horror/suspense fan I am today. So when I was asked to give the name of my favorite children’s or YA horror book and this choice would be made very public, I decided to reread The Dollhouse Murders to see if it held up to my memories and if I were willing to declare it my favorite, as I definitely would have at age 8 or so.

In The Dollhouse Murders, after her developmentally delayed sister ruins an afternoon at the mall, Amy runs away to her aunt’s house and ends up striking a deal to stay with Aunt Clare in the house where Amy’s great grandparents lived and raised Aunt Clare and Amy’s father. Amy discovers a dollhouse in the attic that is an exact replica of the house, complete with two adult dolls and a boy and a girl doll to represent the family. Amy is delighted at first but when she notices that the dolls are moving by themselves, the lights in the dollhouse are turning themselves on and off, she becomes scared, naturally. It becomes even more terrifying when she learns that her great grandparents were murdered in the house and the dolls seem to be recreating the crime scene. The murderer was never caught. Could the dollhouse be trying to tell Amy something? Sharing some information to solve the mystery of the murder? Yep, pretty much.

This book is a perfect example of how middle-grade horror should be. It has a few suspenseful scenes, a high creep factor with the old house, the attic, and the dolls, but the characters are never in any real danger. While it talks about murder, there is no gore or violence; that all happens in the past and is only hinted at. And while the murders seem like the main story, The Dollhouse Murders is much more about family relationships, the secrets we keep, and the uncertainties of making and keeping friends as a tween. I was surprised by how much I still liked it, despite a pretty safe, anti-climactic ending.

One last thing about Amy’s sister LouAnn. She is developmentally delayed, and aside from the use of the word “retarded” one time in the book (it was written in the ’80s after all, though they should have fixed it in the 2012 edition), LouAnn is written with great respect by the author, I felt. She is key in solving the mystery and her relationship with Amy, while strained, grows throughout the story. A fully abled little sister would have sufficed but Wright chose to write her as disabled but not helpless. While diverse writing has come a long way since 1985, I really appreciated the inclusiveness of LouAnn’s character.

I didn’t end up naming The Dollhouse Murders as my favorite children’s horror book. Instead I opted for The Witches by Roald Dahl, which is pretty much my all-time favorite children’s book that also just happens to be horror.

Fun fact: there was a made-for-TV movie based on The Dollhouse Murders in 1992.

Read alikes/some other middle grade horror-mystery-suspense I read as a ’90s kid

The Face on the Milk Carton by Lois Duncan
Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
All the old Nancy Drew books with the yellow covers by Carolyn Keene
The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine

Bone Gap

bonegap

Bone Gap
Laura Ruby
Balzer + Bray
March 2015

In the small, cornfield-surrounded town of Bone Gap, Illinois, beautiful and foreign Roza mysteriously appears in the farmhouse of Finn and Sean O’Sullivan and after a few months disappears again under mysterious circumstances. Finn, known as Moonface and Sidetrack by the townspeople for his strange demeanor, was the only person to witness her kidnapping but cannot seem to recall enough of the incident to provide a good description of the kidnapper. Sean, like half the town, was in love with Roza and is finding it hard to forgive his younger brother for his lack of helpfulness in the investigation. Meanwhile Finn falls in love with fellow strange teen Petey, the daughter of the local beekeeper, who discovers the reason for Finn’s spaciness. Strange occurrences abound – Finn finds a beautiful horse in his barn which he takes for midnight rides with Petey to what seems like the other side of the proverbial veil. Roza, who narrates many of the chapters from her captivity, is moved from a house to a castle to a beautiful garden that are all able to magically transform. Can these fantastical, enigmatic happenings help Finn find Roza and repair his relationship with his brother, Petey, and the town? Or will he forever be the moonfaced kid with the missing link to an unsolved mystery hidden somewhere in his memory?

This book is so hard to pin down, especially while you are reading it. Looking back after finishing the whole thing, it fits into the coming-of-age, mystery, romance, myth/fantasy/horror genre – which is to say that it pretty much defies genre. Basically it is everything I hoped Swamplandia! would be when I impressed my YA expectations on that adult novel (HUGE mistake, by the way). The writing is beautiful and strange and sometimes that is the only thing you have to hold onto as you think to yourself “what is even going on right now?! No, actually, I don’t care. I’m just going to keep reading these beautiful words.”

{slight spoiler alert ahead!!!}
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This book was a finalist for a National Book Award, I imagine both for the writing and for the topical young-woman-gets-kidnapped, boy with disability saves the day. There’s an illuminating and awesomely crit-lit-esque interview with Laura Ruby on the National Book Awards site.

Read alikes

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

NOT Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (not that you shouldn’t read it. You should. Just prepare to be traumatized and schooled on how adult literature differs from YA.)

Update: Bone Gap won the 2016 Printz Award for most distinguished book for Young Adult published in 2015. Well deserved!