My second Newbery read was The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I really like Gaiman’s work, so I had read this one before it won the Newbery. My memory is pretty spotty, so this book was almost brand-new for me when I reread it. I do remember enjoying it the first time through, but I wish my memories were more specific. Did I enjoy it as much as I did this time? Did I struggle with what I struggled with on the reread? Was I just as critical with it then as I was this time? Was I more absorbed in the story than I was on the reread?
The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens, who, as a baby, toddles out of his house and up the street to the local graveyard-turned-nature-reserve while a man named Jack murders Bod’s family in their beds. He is adopted and named by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, a pair of ghosts, and cared for and fed by Silas, a mysterious protector who mysteriously turns the man Jack away from the graveyard when he comes searching for baby Bod to finish the job. The rest of the novel follows Bod as he grows and learns, has adventures, and meets new characters—living and dead, natural and supernatural, human and not-so-human.
I mentioned above my relative absorption in the story on the first read and the reread. Just as I forgot that From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was a letter written by the titular character, so I forgot that The Graveyard Book reads like a series of short stories chronicling Bod’s life in chronological order. This is not a method of storytelling that I am used to, at least not with such content. The Graveyard Book is full of ghosts, murderers, supernatural beings, etc., and so I expected it to move at a quick pace and be full of adventure. Bod does have adventures, but they are for the most part neatly wrapped up at the end of each story-chapter. Plots generally follow Freytag’s Pyramid:
But The Graveyard Book doesn’t really feel like that. It feels more like Freytag’s Mountain Range: lots of little climaxes and falling actions, instead of just one big one.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—just an unexpected thing. One of my favorite books, Anne of Green Gables, employs this method. This 1908 book is supposed to be mostly pastoral and sedate, and so the episodic plot works perfectly. Similarly, several short stories follow the character Mowgli in The Jungle Book, upon which The Graveyard Book is based in part, and perhaps this helped lead Gaiman to use short stories. It’s just not the way I would have written a ghosts-and-monsters-and-murderers book. The episodic nature helps make this book feel slow and quiet. I felt less absorbed in it, less “sucked in,” than I do by books with one focused plot. It’s easier to put this book down and not pick it up again for a while because each chapter is so self-contained and lacks cliffhanger endings.
It feels odd to call this book quiet when I look back over the table of contents and remember what each story is about. In chapter 2, Bod and a human girl encounter terrifying beings in a millenia-old barrow. In Chapter 3, Bod is kidnapped by ghouls into their world through a ghoul-gate—an old, neglected, tumbledown grave. Chapter 4 has Bod sneak out into the world of the living and become trapped by an avaricious old man who wants to turn Bod over to Jack. In chapter 5 the dead and living dance together; in 6 Bod tries to defeat school bullies and gets picked up by the police; and in 7 he faces the deadly Jack and his cohorts. These are all harrowing experiences, and yet the prevailing remembrance I have of the book is of the quiet grayness and kind inhabitants of the graveyard, perhaps reinforced by the dreamlike illustrations by Dave McKean.*
This is not to say that I remember the book with dislike at all. In fact I found it thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining. Each story-chapter is beautifully crafted, the exhilarations and tensions and terrors are very real and deftly done, and I can’t get enough of any of the characters, even some of the antagonists (the ghouls have all the conflicting fascination and revulsion of a good horror movie). There’s even a big, frightening twist in a later chapter that I didn’t see coming the first time I read it. When I was in fourth grade, my classmates and I were finally able to check Alvin Schwartz’s scary story collections out from the school library, and we spent the year obsessed with the supernatural, scaring each other silly with ghost stories at the lunch table. We definitely would have devoured The Graveyard Book. Which makes me wonder: is the sedate episodic format meant to soften the impact of the fairly intense scares Bod endures? I also spent fourth grade sleeping with the lights on and jumping at shadows, and many of the beings Bod encounters would have terrified me.
Let’s look at its Newbery worthiness. The award’s terms state: “The Medal shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” Does The Graveyard Book meet the Newbery criteria for being called distinguished?
- Interpretation of the theme or concept—check. This is a coming-of-age story, and the theme of growing up and finding out who you are and where you belong is well done.
- Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization—check. I didn’t find any contradictions or anything that was confusing. There are many, many times when Gaiman isn’t crystal-clear (for example, he never tells you outright that Silas is a vampire, but rather provides telling clues), but that’s just part of his agile storytelling.
- Development of a plot—check. Each chapter’s individual plot is well developed, and there is an overarching plot as well.
- Delineation of characters—checkity check! The characters are my favorite part of this book.
- Delineation of a setting—check again! Maybe the setting is my favorite part—I can’t decide. This is a very atmospheric book.
- Appropriateness of style—check. I’m not really sure if this means appropriate for a child reader, or appropriate to the content, but the style of this book is definitely appropriate in both ways. Dreamlike (or nightmarelike) and supernatural, and perfect for a child reader—perhaps 3rd or 4th grade and up?
I will say that I may have made a different choice for the Medal. The Honor books for 2009 are:
- The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
- The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle
- Savvy by Ingrid Law
- After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
The only one of these I’ve read is Savvy, and I adore it. I think Mibs is an excellent narrator, and I love all of the other characters too (Bobbi just reeks of coolness that affects even me, and I’m 10 years older than her!). The story is adventurous, full of highs and lows and laughs and a touch of honest sentimentality. It’s been several months since I’ve read it, but as far as I can remember it hits all of the criteria. It just appeals to me more than The Graveyard Book does—plus, my reading of The Graveyard Book is dented by one little paragraph near the end. It doesn’t go against any of the criteria or really weaken the book, but it just bothers me. Since it’s a spoiler, I’ll discuss it at the very end of the post.
Want to broaden your experience of The Graveyard Book beyond simply reading it? Here are a few ways. First, you can check out Gaiman’s interview on the Colbert Report—it’s informative, it’s highly entertaining, and it has an interesting answer to the question of how a person with a British accent can win an American literature award (real answer: Gaiman lives in Minnesota). Then you can visit mousecircus.com, Gaiman’s website for his younger readers. For The Graveyard Book, you’ll find FAQs, downloads, games, videos, Gaiman’s suggested playlist for the book, and more. If you check out his video tour, you can watch him read The Graveyard Book aloud in its entirety from different stops on his book tour. Lastly, you can look for your own ghoul-gates. They are described on page 61 of the book, and my boyfriend, who first gave me the book as a birthday gift, and I have been hunting for them ever since we first read it. (It helps that we live right by Trinity Church Cemetery!) Our photos of possible ghoul-gates have illustrated this post.
Who should give this book a try?
Anyone who has even the smallest interest in anything at all supernatural. Kids who like Gaiman’s creepy book Coraline, or the movie based thereon. Kids who like the Alvin Schwartz scary story collections. Kids who like the Goosebumps books. Kids who like Mary Downing Hahn’s novels. Kids who are scared of ghosts—this book may make them feel a little better, as all the ghosts are protagonists. Kids who like mysteries. Kids who aren’t scared by ghost stories. Kids who are scared by ghost stories but still like them. Kids whose interests tend to the somewhat dark and creepy—which is pretty much every kid.
The aforementioned SPOILER:
If you have read this book, then you know who the man Jack is and why he is trying to kill Bod. One explanatory paragraph, on page 271, leaves a sour taste in my mouth. A few other Jacks are telling Bod that Bod’s birth was prophesied “back in Egypt, in pyramid days,” and that if Bod grew to adulthood, it would mean the end of the Jacks. This backstory feels a little weak to me. Read: “We had people casting nativities before London was a village, we had your family in our sights before New Amsterdam became New York. And we sent what we thought was the best and the sharpest and the most dangerous of all the Jacks to deal with you.”
I see several problems with this. 1. If the Jacks had Bod’s family “in their sights” so many long years ago, why did they not exterminate the family then and thus prevent Bod’s birth? 2. If the Jack organization was so strong and so numerous, why did they send only one Jack to kill Bod instead of several? 3. If the Jack they sent was really so great, why did he fail to kill a baby? And why didn’t he kill just the baby, or kill the baby first before killing the rest of the family? .
I suppose these can all be explained, but the explanations I’ve thought of are tenuous. 1. The prophecy says the Jacks will fall if the prophesied child reaches adulthood. If the Jacks had exterminated Bod’s ancestors, perhaps some other family would have given birth to the necessary child. If this were the case, I wish it had been made clearer. 2. When Scarlett finds a newspaper “article” about Bod’s family’s murder, it is just a page-5 tidbit that doesn’t even mention a missing baby. Perhaps the cover-up would have been harder if it seemed that more than one murderer had been involved? See, this is pretty tenuous. 3. I really don’t have an answer for why Jack killed Bod’s family first, allowing Bod time to toddle away. Perhaps he thought he had plenty of time, because Bod was years away from adulthood. However, it seems the Jacks were ended simply by Bod’s reaching the cemetery instead of adulthood, because they met their end at the hands of Silas and his companions, who were not able to find them until Bod came to the cemetery: “We suspected there was an organization behind it, but they hid too well,” Silas says on page 291. “And then they came after you, and they killed your family. And, slowly, I was able to follow their trail.”
Perhaps I am being overly critical, and that is why this paragraph creates an unsatisfactory backstory for me. Maybe there are better explanations than what I’ve thought of. Maybe the intended young audience for the most part wouldn’t be bothered at all by this paragraph. I really don’t know—what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments (please warn first that it’s a spoiler!). I want to reiterate: I definitely think this is a distinguished book, deserving of its medal and worth reading. For me, this little bit of backstory only puts the slightest of dents in how excellent this book is.