This was my first Neil Gaiman title, and I didn’t know what to expect. Gaiman seems to be one of those “love-him-or-hate-him” authors. So I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining the book was, from start to finish. While the premise might be grim – a toddler escapes the knife-wielding madman who has murdered the other members of his family by wandering into a graveyard, where he is raised by the dead (and nearly dead) occupants – the book is actually a coming of age story about taking advantage of whatever bizarre resources and unconventional talents you happen to have, and ultimately making your way in the world with what you’ve learned.
The Graveyard Book delivers both humor and humanity along with a few—but not very many – spine-tingly moments. Bod (short for Nobody Owens) grows from a little boy to a young adult, secure in the refuge of his unconventional home, surrounded by his strange but loving family. The genius of the book is that while Bod’s guardian sleeps in a crypt and his best friend was drowned and burned as a witch, it all seems completely normal. After all, whose family isn’t a bit off the wall? Who hasn’t dreaded making the acquaintance of some mildly unsavory character, only to find out you have way more in common with him than you could have believed? In that, Gaiman owes a great deal to Charles Addams, I think.
I liked the way Gaiman took creatures already in our cultural consciousness – ghouls and vampires and werewolves and witches – and expanded on them, giving them sometimes unexpected personalities and characteristics. Unfortunately, I think he was somewhat less successful with the creatures of his own imagination. Without a cultural reference, I never thought the Sleer developed in such a way that his actions could be anticipated. And the Jacks remained a mystery at the end. All the evil visited upon the toddler still seemed too enigmatic for a YA title.
Gaiman is at his best when he writes the menacing bits: “Fear is contagious. You can catch it. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say that they’re scared for the fear to become real” (pg. 188). I definitely wouldn’t have minded had he pushed the panic button just a bit harder in a few places.
Still, this is a YA title that I would definitely recommend to people who love a good ghost and ghoul story. I am especially looking forward to reading it with my 4th grader this October – she’s at that great age where she LOVES to be scared – but just not too much. I’m envisioning a blustery night, a candlelit room, some warm apple cider, and the fun of sharing a mildly perilous tale.
You know that mildly apprehensive sensation that’s easily made better by a hug? That’s The Graveyard Book.