Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Graveyard Book

This book was refreshingly fun after trying (unsuccessfully) to slog through Doctor Zhivago. I was captivated by the suspenseful story, the inventive setting, the kind, wise, funny, sinister cast of characters, and the clever language and humor.

The story opens with a scary scene: a family murdered by a man named Jack. (I briefly wondered how appropriate this was for kids, but Gaiman carefully avoids describing the violence, and the story quickly moves into friendlier territory.) A toddler escapes the house unnoticed and makes his way to a nearby graveyard, where he is adopted and raised by its ghostly residents. (The Graveyard Book is loosely based on The Jungle Book.)

The graveyard itself is a great setting. To an outsider it might seem creepy and isolated, but for Nobody Owens ("Bod" for short), it's a safe and cozy place to grow up. It's filled with places to explore and friends to meet, both living and dead. And Bod is granted Freedom of the Graveyard, so he can see in the dark, the cold doesn't bother him, and he learns useful skills like Fading and Sliding and Dreamwalking.

The book is both a novel and a collection of short stories, so in a series of episodes, we follow Bod's progress from toddler to teen as he navigates his unusual life amid ghosts, ghouls, witches, and the occasional living, breathing human. Along the way he braves new dangers, discovers his strengths and limitations, and learns what it will take to survive in the world beyond the graveyard. By the end, he's discovered why his family was killed, why the sinister convocation of Jacks is still after him, and what he must do about it.

The story is about being a child and growing up. But the bittersweet last chapter also makes it about parenting, about the tragic/comic fact that if, as a parent, you do your job properly and raise your children well, they stop needing you. They go away, and move on to their own lives and futures.

This is a terrific book. It's creepy and suspenseful, tender and funny. I haven't read anything else by Neil Gaiman, but lots of people seem to think this is his best work, and it did win the Newbery. I've also heard the audiobook (narrated by Mr. Gaiman) is really good, and there's a movie in the works. But whatever way you choose to experience this book, definitely check it out!