Monday, January 18, 2016

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)

On the night his entire family is murdered by a man identified only as Jack, a toddler wanders out of his house and into the nearby graveyard. Here, he is taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, ghosts who were buried there many years before, and given the name of Nobody, or Bod for short. Bod is given the Freedom of the Graveyard, which allows him to move freely through solid objects and gates while he is in the graveyard. Silas, the graveyard's caretaker also becomes guardian to Bod, and ensures that he has food, shelter, and an education. As he grows up, Bod uncovers more and more secrets, first about the graveyard and then about the man who took the lives of his parents.

I tried to read this book the year after it won the Newbery, but being wary of ghost stories, I had a hard time getting into it. This time, I also didn't like the beginning of the story that much. It took me a couple of chapters to warm up to the characters and the concept. Early on, I kept telling my husband, "I get why the writing is good, but I don't think I like this book." But as Bod got older, things started to get more and more interesting, and I began to become invested in the question of what would become of Bod as an adult, and how he might ultimately come to terms with what happened to his parents.

What I also love about this book is the way it incorporates history. The ghosts in the graveyard come from many different time periods, so they speak, dress, and even teach differently, depending on their experiences as living people. Because they are ghosts, though, they also have a sense of the history of the graveyard itself, which becomes increasingly important to Bod as he considers his own place within it. I loved the way all of these people come together to create a society within the graveyard, and to protect Bod, whom they all love. I also love the storyline involving Scarlett, a little girl with whom Bod plays as a child, and with whom he reunites as a teen. I actually think I would have liked even more scenes with Scarlett, as that friendship - Bod's only relationship with someone from the outside world -  is so compelling.

This book really is well-written, and it's different from a lot of other middle grade novels, in both style and subject matter. That said, it also made me question how much of what I have loved about books like the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are creative decisions made by their authors and how much are just tropes of the fantasy genre. Silas, for example, reminded me of Dumbledore and Gandalf, while Bod's desire for revenge on "the man Jack" mirrors Harry's relationship to Voldemort. It probably doesn't matter much, as these tropes are used differently in each story, but it makes me realize what I have missed out on by not reading fantasy as a kid, and continuing to avoid it as an adult.

The Graveyard Book is probably most appropriate for middle school readers, due to the violence which begins the story, and the sophistication of Gaiman's writing. There is also a graphic novel adaptation in two volumes, which would be an interesting companion to the novel, but only after enjoying the novel. Part of the fun of reading this book is imagining the characters for yourself, an experience you just can't have when an illustrator lays everything out visually. I also think it would be neat to pair this book with Spoon River Anthology, which is a set of fictional epitaphs for the dead residents of a small rural town, written in their own voices.

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