I’m trying to remember the last time I read a children’s book that begins with a bloody triple homicide – other than The Graveyard Book, that is.
I think of The Bad Beginning (first book of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events), which is as good as its title, and starts off with the tragic death by fire that orphans three children. I suppose Harry Potter counts as well, what with his parents being murdered and him being permanently scarred by an evil wizard. And of course there is plenty of death and unpleasantness in fairy tales, often resulting in children being raised by a wicked witch, or someone else who does not have their best interests at heart. If they are more fortunate, they may be taken in by kindly fairies or jungle animals – but the baddies who have it out for them are still out there. Thinking of such tales, I suppose it is a fine old tradition to present a child protagonist with a dark past and terrifying obstacles to overcome – with or without help from anyone else.
What is not quite so traditional is having that child protagonist being raised by a community of kindly ghosts in an old graveyard. But why not? If we consider Neil Gaiman’s explanation of how the idea came to him, it makes perfect sense:
“Twenty-three years ago, we lived in a little Sussex town in a tall house across the lane from a graveyard. We didn’t have a garden, and our 18-month-old son loved riding a tricycle. If he tried riding in the house he would have died because there were stairs everywhere, so every day I would take him down our precipitous stairs, and he would ride his little tricycle round and round the gravestones. As I watched him happily toddling I would think about how incredibly at home he looked. I thought that I could do something like The Jungle Book with that same equation of boy, orphaned, growing up somewhere else, but I could do it in a graveyard. I had that idea when I was 24 years old. I sat down and tried writing it and thought, ‘This is a really good idea, and this isn’t very good writing. I’m not good enough for this yet, and I will put it off until I’m better.” (found on his website)
He evidently waited just long enough, because this book has won a good number of prizes, including the Newbery Medal (children’s lit, US), the Hugo Best Novel Prize (Sci and Fantasy) and the Carnegie Medal (children’s lit, UK). Gaiman is the first author to win both the Newbery and Carnegie medals for the same book. And while the Hugo occasionally goes to a children’s book, it is not the norm.
On to the story – I mentioned that it begins with a “bloody” triple homicide, but actually, the blood is the insertion of my own imagination. Though the story begins with a knife, and the description of a situation that you’re pretty sure you don’t want to be in, Gaiman does not mention blood and murder. He does a wonderful job of talking around things, providing us with details as a calm and impartial, but curious, observer. Rather than describing a murder scene in gory detail, he gives us this:
“The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.” and, “He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.”
That toddler is our main character, who was awakened by a noise, and crawled out of his crib and wandered out of the house and up the hill to a graveyard, thus escaping the fate of the rest of his family. A kindly couple, Master and Mistress Owens, now dead some few hundred years and still a bit sad that they never had children, decide that they will give the baby a name (Nobody Owens, Bod for short) and care for him as their own. Though they are unable to leave the graveyard, another resident, Silas, takes on the role of guardian for the boy. Silas, we learn, is neither living nor dead, but he has the “right of abode” in the graveyard, and he can move among the living, so he has the responsibility of getting food and other supplies for his young charge.
Silas is an intriguing character, and he is never given a familiar “label” that would identify him as someone we might expect to find in a graveyard. He is called a “solitary type” and a member of the “Honor Guard” who helps protect the “borders of things.” Other than that, he is simply Silas (but it takes next to no time to figure out his…nature). One of my favorite descriptions of him comes from Bod’s own thoughts:
“[Bod] wanted to embrace his guardian, to hold him and tell him that he would never desert him, but the action was unthinkable. He could no more hug Silas than he could hold a moonbeam, not because his guardian was insubstantial, but because it would be wrong. There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas.”
So Bod grows up in the graveyard. It is a quiet existence, as one might expect, but he is well cared for, and he is safe. He is given “the Freedom of the Graveyard”, so he can see and speak with those who are there, and he can do things there that other living beings would not be able to do. As he grows, he has questions about why he is not allowed to leave the graveyard, but he is generally content.
Then he meets a girl – a living girl around his own age, who visits the graveyard with her mother. Bod is enchanted with the idea of having such a colorful and lively friend. Even her name is bright – Scarlett. Scarlett is not wholly convinced that Bod is alive or real, but when did such details stop a five-year-old from making a new friend? Before long, Scarlett and her parents move far away, but Bod never forgets her. With this new friend, Bod learns that there is more to life than, well…death. He becomes increasingly interested in the world beyond the graveyard and people like himself – the type that breathe. And with this interest, he becomes increasingly willing to risk the danger of running into someone who is definitely out to get him.
While Bod is still too young to leave the graveyard, the ghosts take on the responsibility of educating him. He learns to read and write, making good use of the gravestone names and epitaphs. He learns from many willing teachers, whose knowledge is often somewhat out-of-date. Bod also learns Fading, Sliding and Dreamwalking, and how to call for help in every language in the world. And he learns manners and respect and consideration for others, regardless of whether they are alive or dead.
And his teachers are dead – we are reminded of this fact each time we are introduced to a member of the graveyard community. As we learn a new name, we are treated to a quick parenthetical epitaph:
“Bod’s left ankle was swollen and purple.” Doctor Trefusis (1870-1936, May He Wake to Glory) inspected it, and pronounced it merely sprained.”
“And so it went, until it was time for Grammar and Composition with Miss Letitia Borrows, Spinster of this Parish (Who Did No Harm to No Man all the Dais of Her Life. Reader, Can You Say Lykewise?). Bod liked Miss Borrows, and the coziness of her little crypt, and that she could all-too-easily be led off the subject.”
These ghosts do their best to prepare Bod for the future because they know that he will eventually have to leave them, and they want him to succeed. It is from the dead and the undead that we understand that this story is about growing up, about change, about life. It is something they no longer have, and because of that, understand the value of it. Silas explains when Bod tries to minimize the threat of death at the hands of his enemies:
“Bod shrugged. ‘So?’ he said. ‘It’s only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead.’
‘Yes,’ Silas hesitated. ‘They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here. You may even walk. But that potential is finished.'”
There is much I won’t go into here – the attempt to go to a regular school, the return of Scarlett, the ever-lurking threat of the man Jack who wants to finish the job he started when Bod was a baby. Instead I will simply say that while there are a lot of ghosts in this story, it is not so much a ghost story as a coming-of-age story, a story about family. It is about bravely facing danger, learning from mistakes, standing up for yourself, being a friend.
And while it has plenty of creepy scary parts, the tale is told with humor – not the laugh-out-loud kind (except for one scene that makes me giggle when I think of it) – the kind that comes with quiet, wry observations and scenes that demonstrate little ironies of life and death. It is also told with deep emotion – the kind that comes with partings that are difficult but necessary, and are full of hope and joy.
Had you been around when I finished the book, you might have seen the ghost of a tear in my eye – but then again, it might have been a trick of the light.
Number of pages: 307
Date of publication: 2008 (definitely the most current book we’ve read so far)
Story time and setting: Current day (early 21st century), with references to cell phones and computers, etc.
First line: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
(This sentence is the only one on the page, accompanied by an illustration of a hand holding a knife.)
Main characters: Nobody Owens (Bod), a living boy raised by ghosts; Silas, his guardian – not a ghost, but can’t be said to be “living” in the graveyard; Scarlett, a girl who visits Bod in the graveyard (and is not exactly sure he is not imaginary or a ghost himself); Master and Mistress Owens, the ghostly couple who raise Bod as their own; the man Jack – someone you do not want to meet. ever.
Amazon.com Best Sellers rank: 3,971 (easily the highest-ranking book we have read so far)
Reading age level: 10 and up (I agree with Amazon as far as reading level; however, emotional level and ability to understand what’s going on – I would put it closer to 12 and up)
Emotional/Maturity level: While the story overall is a positive coming-of-age tale, it begins with murder and progresses to pursuit by mythical nasties who intend to finish off the main character, who is still a child. Involvement with him puts a friend in danger as well. And it is set in modern times among regular folks, so there is no “once upon a time” safety zone. Vampires, werewolves, mummies and ghosts are the good guys. Even if a child will not be creeped out by the story, it helps with understanding if they have some familiarity with the legendary undead.