I’ve noticed that there’s been an increased interest in the macabre in children’s literature lately. Sometimes when I’ve had a glass or two of wine and I’m in a contemplative mood I try weaving together a postulation that ties the current love of violent movies into this rise in children’s literary darkness. Is the violence of the world today trickling down into our entertainment? Hogwash and poppycock and other words of scoff and denial, says sober I. But I’ve certainly seen a distinct rise in the Gothic and otherworldly over the last few years, and one wonders if it’s because kids want more of that kind of stuff or publishers are merely getting less squeamish. All that aside, generally I’ll read a May Bird book or an Everlost title and they’ll be fun examinations of the hereafter, but not the kind of things that touch my heart. Great writing doesn’t have to transcend its genre. It just has to be emotionally honest with the reader. And The Graveyard Book is one of the most emotionally honest books I’ve yet to have read this year. Smart and focused, touching and wry, it takes the story of a boy raised by ghosts and extends it beyond the restrictive borders of the setting. Great stuff.
It starts with three murders. There were supposed to be four. The man Jack was one of the best, maybe THE best, and how hard is it to kill a toddler anyway? But on that particular night the little boy went for a midnight toddle out the front door while the murderer was busy and straight into the nearby graveyard. Saved and protected by the denizens of that particular abode (the ghosts and the far more corporeal if mysterious Silas), the little boy is called Bod, short for Nobody because no one knows his name. As he grows older, Bod learns the secrets of the graveyard, though he has to be careful. The man (or is it “men”?) who killed his family could come back for him. Best to stay quiet and out of sight. Yet as Bod grows older it becomes clear that hiding may not be the best way to confront his enemies. And what’s more, Bod must come to grips with what it means to grow up.
Can I level with you? You know Coraline? Mr. Gaiman’s previous foray into middle grade children’s literature. Come close now, I don’t want to speak too loudly. Uh… I didn’t much care for it. WAIT! Come back, come back, I didn’t mean it! Well, maybe I did a tad. It was a nice book. A sufficient story. But it was very much (new category alert) an adult-author-to-children’s-author-first-timer-novel-title. Gaiman appeared to be finding his sealegs with Coraline. He took the old Alice in Wonderland trope which adult authors naturally gravitate to on their first tries (see: Un Lun Dun, Summerland, The King in the Window, etc.). Throw in some rats, bees, and buttons, and voila! Instant success. But Coraline for all its readability and charm didn’t get me here [thumps chest]. I didn’t feel emotionally close to the material. Now why it should be that I’d feel closer emotionally to a book filled with a plethora of ghosts, ghouls, night-gaunts, and Hounds of God, I can only chalk up to The Graveyard Book‘s strong vision.
My husband likes to say that the whole reason Buffy the Vampire Slayer worked as a television show was that it was a natural metaphor for the high school (and eventually college) experience. Likewise, The Graveyard Book has this strong,strange, wonderful metaphor about kids growing up, learning about the wider world, and exploring beyond the safe boundaries of their homes. There’s so much you can read into this book. I mean, aren’t all adults just ghosts to kids anyway? Those funny talking people whose time has passed but that may provide some shelter and wisdom against the wider, crueler world. Plus Mr. Gaiman also includes characters in Bod’s world that kids will wish they had in their own. Silas, a man who may be a vampire (though the word is never said) is every child’s fantasy; A mysterious/magical guardian/friend who will tell you the truth when your parents will not.
One thing I particularly liked about the book was the fact that Bod makes quite a few careless or thoughtless mistakes and yet you don’t feel particularly inclined to throttle him because of them. Too often in a work of fiction a person isn’t properly put into the head of their protagonist. So when that character walks off and does something stupid there’s the sense (sometimes faint, sometimes not) that they deserved it and you’re not going to stick around and read about somebody that dumb, are you? But even when Bod is at his most intolerable, his most childishly selfish and single-minded, you can understand and sympathize with him. Bod is no brat, a fact that implies right there that he is someone worth rooting for. We see our own young selves in Bod, and we root for him as a result. And as Bod reaches each stage in his growth, he encounters experiences and personalities that help him to reach maturity. That’s a lot to put on the plate of a l’il ole fantasy novel, particularly one that’s appropriate for younger kids.
And it is appropriate too. Don’t let the fact that the first sentence in the book (“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”) put you off. The murder of Bod’s family is swift, immediate, and off-screen. What remains is just a great fantasy novel that has the potential to appeal to both boy and girl readers. Kid wants a ghost story? Check. Kid wants a fantasy novel set in another world appropriate for Harry Potter fans? Check. Kid wants a “good book”. That’s my favorite request. When the eleven-year-old comes up to my desk and begs for “a good book” I can just show them the cover and the title of this puppy and feel zero guilt when their little eyes light up. A good book it is.
I guess that if I have any objections at all to the title it has something to do with the villains. They’re a bit sketchy, which I suppose is the point, but we live in an era where children’s fantasy novels spend oodles of time defining their antagonists’ motivations and histories. Gaiman’s more interested in his hero, which is natural, but the villains’ raison d’être is just a bit too vague for the average reader. Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that Bod’s family is slaughtered at the start of this tale you wouldn’t necessarily know whether or not to believe that these people are as nasty as we’ve been told.
That said the book’s a peach. I once heard someone postulate that maybe Neil Gaiman wrote it just so that he could play with the sentence “It takes a graveyard to raise a child.” Unlikely. Fun, but unlikely. I mean, he does make a casual allusion that isn’t far off from that phrase, but he never goes whole hog. This book doesn’t feel like it was written to back up a joke. It feels like a book written by a parent with children growing up and moving out. It’s a title that tips its hat to kids making their way in the world, their pasts behind them, their futures unknown. This is not yet another silly little fantasy novel, but something with weight and depth. The fact that it just happens to be loads of fun to boot is simply a nice bonus. Highly recommended.
On shelves September 30th.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Educating Alice
- The Fidra Blog
- Reading Rants
- Au Courant
- Random Wonder
- Just Giblets
- The Book Swede
- Welcome to My Tweendom
- Galley Readers Book Review Club
- Let the Wild Rumpus Start!
- Many a Quaint and Curious Volume
- Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric
- and other blogs too numerous to count.
Notes on the Cover: Mr. Gaiman’s blog is one of the finest authorial weblogs of its kind. One day, Mr. Gaiman chose to show various potential covers and jackets for the title. The publisher apparently eschewed the baby dancing on the bloody knife, which I can understand if not entirely back (it’s sort of my favorite). Subterranean Press appears to be publishing a version of it in any case. Here are some of the covers you can find while trolling the web.
And here is the British cover as penned by Chris Riddell. It shows Bod and Silas side-by-side.
As for the cover the American publisher did go with, I’m a fan. It doesn’t look too dark, and sports just the right mix of mystery and kid-friendly spooky fare. Normally I’d object to yet another silhouette on a cover, but look how cleverly they’ve worked Bod in here. He is an absence. A nobody in the most perfect sense of the word. Classy.
- It wasn’t until I read this review that I discovered that The Graveyard Book is a play on The Jungle Book. I am very slow.
- If you would like a glimpse of how Chris Riddell preferred to do his own Graveyard Book illustrations, you can find one here.
- If you happen to be interested in getting a Graveyard Book of your very own, there is a contest at thegraveyardbook.com that asks you to do the following:
Kindly compose some Very Final Thoughts for three people, as follows:
1. A famous (or infamous) living character of your choosing
2. Someone on the very cusp of dying in a very stupid manner
3. And you, personally — in the brief moments before you shuffle off this mortal coil
Be funny if you like; death can be hilarious. But if you’d like a real challenge, make your concluding thoughts profound, or poignant.
- Here is Mr. Gaiman himself reading the chapter entitled The Witch’s Headstone: