The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman (illus. Dave McKean)
September 30, 2008
I’m dispensing with the introduction on this post because… well, it was meant to be a part of the previous post on Coraline, but… then the monomyth took over and it went a bit overlong and I knew I had a bit to say about this book too, so… we’ve got our own post.
To start: The Graveyard Book is a little bit scary. I would argue that it isn’t as scary as Coraline (which I finished in one sitting and found it difficult to sleep after reading). The Graveyard Book is also a more mature book than Coraline in that a lot of the lessons presented are meant for older children (though they could certainly apply for younger children as well). Similarly, the language used in the book is also aimed at older children, so keep that in mind if you’re considering this book for your little one.
As I stated in the Coraline post, what I particularly enjoy about these books is that Gaiman doesn’t shy away from difficult scenarios or situations. To wit: the start of this novel has a mysterious man named Jack murdering our protagonist’s entire family. Our protagonist, Bod, is but a baby (about a year old) who toddles away from the house and into a nearby graveyard. The baby is taken in by a pair of ghosts who, with the help of the rest of the cemetery, raise him to adulthood.
I should say now that The Graveyard Book bears many similarities to another book with a similarly simplistic title, The Jungle Book. For instance, the idea of a toddler being taken into the care of a non-human group that raises him. And, like The Jungle Book, each chapter is a separate story (though all of the stories in Gaiman’s book have the same protagonist, unlike Kipling’s which have multiple).
Unlike Coraline where I felt the best part of the story was showing children that difficult situations can be overcome, the best part of The Graveyard Book is easily the heart. The characters are easy to make an emotional connection with, especially Liza Hempstock (by far my favorite secondary character in the novel).
The good characters are good, the evil characters are evil and there isn’t really a lot of gray… and it works really well. Instead of having some kind of sympathetic villain, we have Jack (or in reality, a whole group of Jacks, calling themselves the Jacks of All Trades). They’re a large organization of people who are looking out for their own best interests and, through a series of murders, magic, and secret planning, are looking to keep it that way.
One thing I particularly enjoyed in the novel is how it treats creatures that would normally be frightening. For instance, Bod’s guardian in the graveyard, Silas, is the only non-ghost that lives there. Though it is never stated outright, the observant reader can easily intuit that he is a vampire. Similarly, one of his teachers (Miss Lupescu) is a werewolf, and they are both part of a group called The Honour Guard who fight to protect the world when necessary (the group also includes a mummy and an ifrit, two other mythological creatures that could be scarier if they weren’t on the side of good).
In the end, though, much of what I appreciated in Coraline are the same things that I appreciated in The Graveyard Book.
Gaiman isn’t pulling punches just because he’s writing for children: The book starts with a murder and has a lot of unscrupulous people (adults and children) who are trying to pull one over on Bod (or even trying to kill him), and there are many fearsome creatures that Bod encounters that wouldn’t be out-of-place in adult novels (though some are treated in a humorous way).
The two protagonists are also similar in that they generate a lot of sympathy for themselves. Coraline is a stronger character, by far, but Bod pulls his own weight and it really is enjoyable to watch him grow up, and see him dealing with rather everyday ideas in a more fantastical way. Each chapter is its own self-contained story and most can be read as a separate entity (though the penultimate chapter does require knowledge of the previous ones to make complete sense) and Bod is one of my favorite characters from children’s literature because I see a lot of myself in him (which is probably the point).
So that’s gonna tie up Neil Gaiman month here at Books & Bits. The American Gods posting I was going to do just won’t fit in… so maybe next month, maybe later on in the summer. April will bring Poetry Month, some bits to make up for missing Small Press Month here in March, and a feature or two one another favorite children’s author, John Bellairs.
From there? The moon. More books, more 8-Bit Rage… Even a book\video game double post of likes the world has never seen!