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MARCH 2009

Review of The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
By Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean
HarperCollins Children’s Books, 307 pp., $17.99 [published earlier in England].

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

If there’s life after Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book may be the one to extend it and ensure that youngsters who got hooked on novels by way of the Potter series keep reaching out for serious reading. In fact, a case might be made that British-born Gaiman, who wrote Coraline and also did the screenplay, will seduce kids even more than they know (not to mention adults). The book’s already made it to The New York Times best-seller list for children, and sales have been over the top.

The Graveyard Book, which just won the country’s most prestigious prize for children’s literature, the John Newbury Medal, awarded by the Association for Library Services, a division of the American Library Association, will likely take youngsters even further linguistically than they went with Potter but just as compellingly into a dark world of magic and the macabre. In awarding the Newbury, the Association praised the tale, about a child who is brought up in a cemetery for its “delicious mix of murder, fantasy, humor and human longing” and its “magical, haunting prose.” Still, parents may want to watch out—some children under nine, to choose a random age, may not all be psychologically prepared for the subject matter, and certainly not for the terrifying way the novel begins. The first words of the text unroll, white letters on a dark gray page, the left side of a two-page illustration that shows a hand curled around a dagger obviously dripping with blood: “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.” Still, a teacher commenting online, who read chapters to her fourth-graders, reported only rapt attention.

The multitalented illustrator, Dave McKean, who has worked with Gaiman for more than two decades, keeps to his tritone pen and ink scheme throughout, creating just the right touch of airy oddness that reflects a career illustrating comics, science fiction and fantasy tales, not to mention filmmaking. But it’s Gaiman’s prose that will prove most striking. A figure ascends a flight of stairs where a family has been sleeping. The knife has done its work -- both blade and the handle are wet. “The man Jack,” as the killer is called, “left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models [ah this last phrase!]. That left only the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of” (the actual violence is not described). Somehow, the baby climbs out of his crib and wanders out of the house, up a hill . . . to a graveyard.

Where did such a bizarre storybook concept come from? From his own two-year-old (who’s now 25), Gaiman says, who was riding a tricycle in a graveyard across from the family’s Sussex house, which had no yard. “I remember thinking once how incredibly at home he looked there . . . I thought you could write something a lot like The Jungle Book and set it in a graveyard.” Indeed, Rudyard Kipling was a big influence and Gaiman, who strongly recommends that children read the stories rather than settle for the movies.

Some of the vocabulary in the book is British, some expressions and references perhaps too sophisticated for lower-grade readers (British statesmen mingle with Victor Hugo and the “33rd president of the United States” [go look him up!], but there’s no denying the power of the prose and Gaiman’s inventiveness. Of Ghuleim, where the ghouls live, he writes, “It was a city that had been built just to be abandoned in which all the fears and madnesses and revulsions of the creatures who built it were made into stone.”

What a wonderful, witty spin on the idea of “it takes a village to raise a child,” for Nobody Owens, Bod, for short, finds himself a whole family in the graveyard, and enemies too, but loving substitute parents, an odd assortment of the dead friends, some going back to pre-historic times, and a lot of arcane lore. He also acquires a mysterious protector who becomes his beloved guardian. An apt pupil, Bod is given the Freedom of the Graveyard, but told not to wander outside the gates. Of course, he will slip through the gates and will make some living friends but also, slowly, learn about what happened to his parents long ago. The assassin has in fact been hunting him all these years and is closing in. Gaiman’s suspenseful tale hits the great archetypal themes—the orphaned child, his coming of age, his sad but necessary reentry into the Real World.#



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