The Graveyard Book: A Review

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKeanIf you somehow missed the big news, this book was the 2009 winner of the Newbery Award for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” This was a big deal in the world of children’s literature for two reasons. (1) A lot of readers really liked this book (and Gaiman in general) before the awards were announced and (2) unlike past winners this book appeals just as strongly to adult readers as to children (I acknowledge this point is debatable).

To save readers some of the embarrassment I had upon finally realizing as much, I will say right now that Neil Gaiman’s novel (with illustrations by Dave McKean) The Graveyard Book (2008) is a riff on Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book.

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If things had gone differently, Nobody Owens might have had a normal life. Things, however, did not go that way and now Bod is a normal boy leading a life very far from what most people would call normal.

When the man Jack killed his family, Bod managed to escape and found sanctuary in a graveyard where he was adopted by two ghosts–the only parents he’s ever known. The Owenses raise Bod as their son in the graveyard with the help of Silas, the boy’s corporeal guardian who is neither living or dead. As he grows older, Bod views the graveyard as his home; its residents become his mentors and friends.

The graveyard is a wonderful place for someone who has free reign and knows no fear of ghosts, but the world is bigger than one graveyard. And somewhere out in that big world is the man Jack. Still waiting for his chance to reunite Bod with his first, long dead, family.

The illustrations in The Graveyard Book when the first page revealed not the expected page of text but dramatic white-on-black text and the stunning first line of the novel:

There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.

This blend of the unexpected and the sensational in the first page largely sets the tone for the rest of the book with its unique content both in written and illustrated form. Although the illustrations take a backseat for the middle part of the novel, they are also likely to entice readers more commonly comfortable with graphic novels.

I read this book after the Newbery was announced and after hearing a significant amount of praise for the it. I also read it after already knowing that The Jungle Book (in the form of the Disney movie to be fair) was not one of my all-time favorite stories. All of which might explain why, although I can see why so many people love this book so much, I merely liked it.

In the acknowledgments section at the end of the book, Gaiman reveals that he started writing The Graveyard Book with chapter four (The Witch’s Headstone) which goes a long way to explain why the story felt more like a collection of related short stories than a novel. For the same reason, the ending seemed to come together quickly and, in some ways, without a connection to the rest of the story (I want to explain further but I can’t because it is a giant spoiler). Another difficulty I had with this book, and it’s been happening to me a lot, is that the story did not end the way I wanted. I am trying to make my peace with that.

That said, this is a rare book that–provided you can put aside your qualms–will appeal to almost everyone. Bod is a great character boys can identify with in this coming-of-age story that never once gets too sappy for boys (or too gory for girls). There is action, adventure, humor, and really good writing. The illustrations are sure to entice reluctant readers. On top of that, there is Silas. One day I will compile a list of the greatest non-protagonist characters in literature and Silas will be near the top of that list.

Jacket praise for The Graveyard Book suggested that readers would want to see more of Bod and his graveyard retinue. While I greatly enjoyed parts of this story (especially chapter four), I disagree. The ending was not the one I wanted, but it was a perfect place to leave Bod and the rest of the characters–a perfect blend of closure and open-endedness.

(I just realized the cover has a boy’s profile carved out of the tombstone. The cover design makes so much more sense now. The discovery also makes me like the book a tiny bit more. ALSO, should you procure the English edition of this book it will have a different cover and different illustrations by Chris Riddell so I have no idea if what I say here will apply to that edition as well.)