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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

July 7, 2009

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“Recently I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t getting any better. So I wrote a short story…” – Neil Gaiman

Introduction & Overview: I was well aware that Neil Gaiman was a great storyteller thanks to his comic book work for Marvel and DC over the years, but it was only relatively recently that I tried one of his novels. I had heard of the stop motion animated film entitled “Coraline” in the making and, loving that medium, wanted to get a drop on her story and travels into a new and exciting world she stumbles upon where she meets her Other Mother…and things start to go downhill rather fast. I read it in one sitting while waiting for my sister to welcome her newest into the world and it was a huge breath of fresh air. It was original, didn’t take itself too seriously, was full of whimsical characters, more than a little creepy, and was a great deal of fun from start to finish. It appeared I had indeed been missing out up to now and that I’d have to keep an eye on this Gaiman fellow’s books. Well, wouldn’t you know it, other people appear to be doing the same and after releasing The Graveyard Book Neal Gaiman went and won himself the John Newbery Medal and a string of honors for the book. Most recently he won an Audie for the audio version of the book and after listening to a sample chapter, and with promises of violins, I decided that I had better jump on board quick and see what all the fuss was about.

The boy was supposed to die. The man Jack had already taken care of his family in the dark of night and with knife firmly in hand snuffing out the life of a baby was supposed to be the easy part of the job. But the boy was gone. Having awoken in his crib he had decided to explore and after lifting himself up and over the bars he had playfully made his way to the bedroom door, down the stairs, and thanks to an open door…into the dark night. On his great adventure that night he found himself traveling up a hill near his home and into a sprawling graveyard. Jack was beside himself, how could the boy have escaped!? Where could he have gone?

Comments: Like Coraline, I was completely engrossed in The Graveyard Book in the few days it took me to complete it on my drives to and from work. I’ve discovered that a good audio book does wonders for me on my long commute and I found myself a little perturbed to actually arrive at my destinations while listening to this. Neil Gaiman does a splendid job bringing the story to life, enthusiastically breathing the characters to life with a genuine excitement, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and an entertaining english accent that is entirely appropriate to the setting. I don’t know that the book would’ve come to life in quite the same way had I read it, but I can say that you’ll do yourself a favor by listening to his own reading.

Well, it seems that the boy that escaped Jack’s clutches that fateful night would become one “Nobody Owens,” a name given him by his ghostly parents Mr. & Mrs. Owens, citizens of the graveyard who, alongside his guardian Silas, take the baby in to protect him from the dangers that lay outside the graveyard gates. Dangers like Jack. “Bod,” as his friends call him, is something of a remarkable boy, taking for his family and friends the dead that inhabit the old graveyard. For him, doing this is as normal as it would be for you and I to go to school each morning and converse with our friends in the hallways. Given the “freedom of the graveyard” Bod is taught lessons by its ghostly citizens both practical and magical and through the course of the book we are treated to several compelling adventures that demonstrate Bod’s growth from a toddler to a young man, from naivete to wisdom, as he tries to apply what he’s learned both within and without the graveyard gates, all while Silas and a group known as the Honour Guard work mysteriously behind the scenes to uncover the truth behind the attempt on his life those many years ago. With Silas’ help, and the assistance of a childhood friend named Scarlett Amber Perkins, Bod slowly begins to unwrap a number of the mysteries surrounding his families death as well and it was interesting to me that instead of being concerned with what he might find, even frightful about the confrontation that might inevitably occur between Jack and himself one day were he to continue pushing for information that he didn’t cower, and that he wasn’t much scared. Actually, in something of a refreshing twist, Bod actually lets the reader in on the fact that it’s not he that has something to fear but that as he grows and adapts to his abilities that  Jack may very well be the one that needs…protecting. It’s not often you see as proactive a group of characters in a novel, much less one geared towards young adults, and it made for a very interesting dynamic when the bad guys do indeed show their faces again. You’ll see!

Additionally, the book is just chock full of mystery, be it a particular characters motivation, why another behaves as they do, what lurks in the dark, or just what kind of being someone really is and these are addressed (or not addressed) masterfully throughout the book so as to fully flesh out an unforgettable cast and add layers of depth to the story. There was actually a scene that occurs towards the end of the book where one of the characters reacts in a way that I couldn’t comprehend at all and for a moment I wanted to level a measure of negative criticism at the book before I realized once more that people seldom react as we might hope, or that would even seem rational on occasion and that it actually made that moment all the more real for me. In the same line of thought, Gaiman doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to confronting the reader with hard truths about Bod, his situation, or the human condition — particularly when he addresses themes of borders and belonging. Despite the story being awfully fun, with good clean scares throughout, it’s likely that its those deeper, life affirming, themes that will stay with the reader and that truly makes it a modern classic worthy of the Newbery for fine literature. Obviously then, I give Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book a very, very high recommendation and hope that you’ll enjoy reading it yourself, as well as with your little ones.

I know I’ll be reading this again and probably again…

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