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Review of the Day: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book
By Neil Gaiman
Illustrations by Dave McKean
Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0060530921
Ages 11 and up
On shelves September 30th

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:

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 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:

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I’ve noticed that very often, books (at least, first books) of Successful Adult Writers who decide to write for the kiddies tend to have great prose and be rather soulless. I’m glad to hear that this one connects emotionally.

  2. Well, this is his second novel for kids which may be part of it. I am glad to say that it is just top notch stellar work, though.

  3. There’s a story about Bod in his short story collection “M is for Magic”. Is that story part of the book?

  4. Someone on Goodreads asked me the very same question and yes. I think we determing that that story does indeed make it into the book. Check out the YouTube video I’ve included here. I think that clarifies the question nicely.

  5. The story in “M is for Magic” (“The Witches Headstone”) is the fourth chapter in “The Graveyard Book.”

  6. It thought the book was interesting but at the end it sucked!!!!!!

  7. never mind i just finished that book i actually loved it and i loved the character Balzac!

  8. Joyce Martin Perz says

    On the subject Newberry winners that are dark – what do you make of the Tale of Despereaux? Father sells child for cigarettes and a blanket to a man who beats her regularly, turning her ears to cauliflowers? A “different” child is condemned to death by Father? .. and the movie takes it another step with a white vapid princess (looks like Paris Hilton) – fat women are stupid and ugly.

  9. I’ve a review of that book on Amazon, I believe. I do not share the Despereaux love of my fellow librarians, I’m afraid. Precisely for the reasons you’ve mentioned, to say nothing of the fact that the jailor dies offscreen without so much as a howdy doo.

  10. Thank you so much for this great review! I am way older than age class it is meant for but as you yourself wrote, the “evil” characters are not, if I got it right, “black”, more as in “grey”…which is a thing I love so much about Neil’s stories.

    Since I started out with his comics (The Sandman) I have been hooked, even more after reading “Good Omens” which was so much the way I love to read! So now to hear “Graveyeard” is out makes me uttlery happy. I bet it’s going to be great and fun. Gotta rush over to amazon and get my copy NOW!

    May he write forever. (And hopefully come to international bookfair Frankfurt this year!!!! (and please at weekend or …)Just kidding.

    Anyway, thank you very much!

  11. great book! but i wonder if theres going to be a sequel…there was a drop of ending.

  12. Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a tedious read. The plot is dismal. I am continually disappointed with Gaiman who has squandered all his potential. Gaiman finds a tiny idea, and proceeds to write in a cloying, self-conscious style that is inevitably empty of meaning. Don’t waste your time.

  13. I am halfway through the book presently, and while reading, I have constantly noticed that the book does not appear to be a children’s book. Why?… Do we want children reading novels that encourage a “grave” look on life? Why encourage odious thoughts about death, hell hounds, witches, ghouls and ghosts when instead they could read novels brimming with lively (in the real sense of the word) adventure and redeeming qualities?

  14. In my experience I have found that it is usually the adults who find such discussions to be dark. Children find them lively in their own way. And the book is chock full of redeeming qualities, but in a very unexpected fashion. Trust me. Kids like ghosts as much as they like princesses. There’s something for everyone in this world.

  15. I finished reading the book but I could not perceive any obvious redemption in the characters. The only thing that appears to be accomplished is revenge, which destroys the hope of a unity between the characters of Scarlett and Nobody (unless one considers that Silas erasing Scarlett’s memory leaves cause for a future hope between the two). One thing that bothered me the most while reading was the tendency of Bod to seek revenge on those who harmed him (seen in the chapter six with the two bullies and again near the end of the novel). “The great fairy tales and children’s fantasy stories attractively depict character and virtue. In these stories the virtues glimmer as if in a looking glass, wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. The stories make us face the unvarnished truth about ourselves and compel us to consider what kind of people we want to be.” (Vigen Guroian’s “Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination” pp. 20-21) The problem with “The Graveyard Book” is that Nobody Owens is a dark character, mysterious and grave, yet he is considered to be the “good” character, the “hero” whom all should emulate. If children choose to imitate Bod we might have a society teeming with people who deem the value of a human life to be worthless (for we will all end up in a graveyard anyway…) and that revenge is a good course of action because it will appease one’s hatred. How is this teaching children to posses redeeming qualities like love and forgiveness?

  16. Although I see the author’s intent in writing this book, why would I expose my students to the darkness it portrays? Should we encourage children to be intrigued by darkness and evil and therefore glorify it? We see evil every day – and is any of it good? Why leave it to the child’s to figure out darkness and it’s creator? I love great literature and books that lure you into them with emotion and heart. I would not promote, however, a book that does that with a darkness that is good.