Haunting good read in The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Dave McKean); published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins, New York, 2008; 312 pages.

Nobody “Bod” Owens has always been an unusual child.  He was able to crawl out of his crib as an infant, a skill that ultimately saved his life.  One horrible evening, a man Jack came into the boy’s home and killed his parents and older sister.  Fortunately, the boy had slipped out of the house and toddled to the local cemetery where he was taken in by unlikely adoptive parents.  The Owenses died a couple of centuries earlier, but the childless Mrs. Owens begged her husband as well as the other spirits of the cemetery to allow her to raise the boy with the Freedom of the Graveyard.  All agree to the conditions after the mystical Lady on the Grey appears to help convince them.  Spirits cannot procure food for a child, so the mysterious Silas, a graveyard denizen, agrees to become the boy’s guardian.  It is Mrs. Owens who names the boy Nobody.  Over the course of chapters, fourteen years of Nobody Owens’ life are chronicled through adventures with ghouls and other creepy characters.  The creepy climax brings a group of Jacks of All Trades to face-off with Bod.

Gaiman explained in an interview that his inspiration for this novel was Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, calling this “jazz riffs” on that theme.  Undoubtedly, Nobody Owens (whose name, my 13 year old daughter astutely explained, sounds like “nobody owns” him) is Mowgli dropped in a much creepier 21st century jungle.  His coming-of-age story is fraught with more modern and more unearthly dangers than the jungle boy’s, but is no less adventurous.  Admittedly, Gaiman starts the tale with the gruesome murders of the boy’s family, but the horror of the event is necessary to the story and is handled in a way that is appropriate for even upper-middle school readers.  Children will devour this story.  Parents will enjoy it as well.  Perhaps librarians will use it in book discussions to compare and contrast with Kipling’s original version of the tale.

I was surprised that this book won the Newbery Award in 2009 then made the Teens Top Ten list as well.  How could a book speak to such a wide range of readers?  I was especially curious how the tale was told because I thought Gaiman’s Coraline was a tad scary for younger readers.  What a pleasant surprise The Graveyard Book provided me.  It is a well-told tale that scares, excites and engrosses readers from the first chapter.  Gaiman’s success stems from what he doesn’t say; for example, we know Silas is a vampire although we are never told that he is.  Silas’ descriptions (no reflection, sleeps in a silk-lined steamer trunk, and walks between the living and the dead) let us infer what and who he is.  Although written for a younger audience, the adventures certainly appeal to a wide audience.  Well done, Mr. Gaiman, well done.

the-graveyard-book

5P     5Q     Grade Level: 4-12+

Cover Art: I read the version of the book illustrated by McKean.  The cover is haunting in dark blues, blacks and misty typefaces.  I think its style will appeal to readers, especially young adults and especially at this time of year (nearing Halloween).

From Reading List: Teens Top Ten, 2009


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