The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This review is super-way-overdue, since I read it for the Pajiba Book Club way back at the end of March. But I’ve gotta write the review in order for it to count towards my Cannonball, so, despite the myriad reviews already written, I’ll throw my hat in the ring.
The Graveyard Book is the only children’s book I can remember that begins with a triple homicide. While that made me instantly hesitant to recommend this to any children that I knew, it certainly did the job of drawing me in and getting me invested in the story.
From the very first sentence, Gaiman sets his tone: eerie, but beautiful. An assassin introduced to us simply as “the man Jack” has just murdered a man, his wife, and their daughter in their beds. He’s looking for their son, but the boy has toddled out of the house and into the graveyard across the street. As Jack goes looking for the boy, a ghostly couple, the Owenses, take him under their wing. Their friend Silas, a mysterious figure, helps to convince Jack that the boy must have gone elsewhere.
After the rest of the graveyard’s denizens agree to allow the boy to stay, the Owenses adopt him, naming him Nobody — “Bod” for short. They love him like a son, and become his surrogate family. Silas acts as his protector, and as the only non-ghost in the graveyard, he is able to slip out regularly and get food and clothes for Bod.
As the story progresses, Bod meets new people, makes new friends, experiences some harrowing adventures, and comes to terms with who he is and the fact that he has to go out into the world and live his life someday.
Despite the murder that begins the book, I still have to recommend this book to every kid I know. This book is beautifully written, and every kid should experience writing like this.
What sets Gaiman’s writing apart from the Stephanie Meyers and J.K. Rowlings (yeah, I said it) of the world is the presence of subtlety. Blessed, blessed subtlety. Bod doesn’t scream at his friends; he doesn’t lose his temper at the drop of a hat, and the fate of the entire world doesn’t rest on his shoulders. He’s important, sure, but he’s no savior. He’s just a regular kid trying to survive a cruel world.
That’s one of the things I really appreciated about Bod as a character: he was refreshingly normal — perhaps not so much in his circumstances, but certainly in his attitudes and his reactions to things. At the end of the story, what makes Bod truly remarkable isn’t his abilities or any special powers he has, but the fact that he has been raised by such a remarkable family: this motley crew of graveyard dwellers.
The relationships that Bod has with his adoptive parents and the rest of the graveyard community are another strong part of this book. Gaiman gives them a real sense of community. We’re seeing most of the story from Bod’s point of view, but the reader still gets the sense that there’s a community here that’s greater than he is. He’s not the center of the universe like some other main characters I could mention.
There’s a haunting silence that fills most of the book, in stark contrast to the yelling and explosions and Mexican standoffs that many children’s authors have taken to depending on to keep their young readers turning pages. And the quiet beauty of Gaiman’s writing is far more effective than the in-your-face gaudiness of most children’s lit today.
God bless you, Neil Gaiman. I’d begun to give up hope that children’s lit could be gripping and well-written. But Gaiman crafts his story with great care and skill, and presents his audience with a chilling tale that still touches the heart.
Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling: bow to your master. Gaiman owns you both.
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