I must confess to not being a huge Neil Gaimon fan. The first time I read Coraline, I found it a little weird and creepy. I reread it as a literature circle book with my students, and found it slightly more enjoyable, but it does have the distinction of being one of the few books I liked less than its movie.
However, The Graveyard Book was wonderful (and incidentally would make an incredible movie if one were so inclined), and far less bizarre than I was expecting. There are all the characters that you’d expect in a fantasy novel – ghosts, werewolves, ghouls – but the story itself is one that feels familiar. Bod’s family is killed in the first chapter, which is the only one that would almost certainly freak out my elementary students. He is a toddler at the time and wanders out of bed and into the nearby graveyard where he is adopted by two ghosts and saved from being killed himself. He is given the name Nobody Owens, or Bod for short. His guardian is the mysterious Silas, who I am guessing is a vampire, though that is never told to the reader specifically.
Bod has a number of adventures, most of which involve his brief forays into the outside world, all intertwined with the overarching plot of the man Jack who is still searching for him. I absolutely love the way his life growing up in the graveyard is described, how he plays with children who were buried there, is taught by those who were teachers before they died, and longs to learn more about everything. It’s particularly great how the graveyard teachers want him to learn ghostly skills like Fading, which comes in pretty handy throughout the book. After all, who among us wouldn’t want to be invisible sometimes? To get out of a sticky situation, to scare the bullies at school… it’s the superpower I’d be choosing, that’s for sure.
One clever strategy that Gaimon uses to put humor in the book is to tell us what the headstones are of the ghosts as we meet them. One of my favorite serious ones is from p. 140: “Miss Liberty Roach (What she spent is lost, what she gave remains with her always. Reader be Charitable). This one from p. 209 made me laugh: “Thomas R. Stout (1817-1851. Deeply regretted by all who knew him). I know it’s supposed to be that they regret his death, but the phrasing suggests the opposite. Anyway, I thought the author must’ve had fun thinking up the epitaphs.
My only complaint about the book really is the way it ends. I find that I am torn between giving a complete review and not wanting to reveal the ending to those who like to be surprised (not you, Mom, I know – I’ll tell you what happened later). I love the resolution of why Bod’s family was killed and he was targeted, particularly the aspect of meeting one’s fate in trying to avoid it. It’s what happens when Bod grows up that I don’t like. I’ll let you read it and see what you think, because you *should* read it.
p. 104 talking to Silas about people who commit suicide
Bod: “Does it work? Are they happier dead?” Silas: “Sometimes. Mostly, no. It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.” Bod: “Sort of.”
This quote is great on so many levels. First, because it’s such a great point about people trying to make changes in their lives. Superficial changes work only if the problem in your life is really external. Internal difficulties are much harder to fix. Of course most of us would rather believe our problems are external, but that’s a different issue for another time. The other reason this quote is great is just the interaction between a boy and an adult. The adult says something wise and the kid doesn’t quite get it, but also isn’t really sure what he doesn’t get about it. So well done.
p. 149 “There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas.” I’m not sure why I liked this quote so much. I guess because I know people like this, and so do you.