Book Review: The Graveyard Book

Growing up, I spent 10 days of my every summer at a religious revival we call “Camp Meeting”. One of my ancestors helped found the place, a large square of wooden shacks that we call “tents” create a massive commons with an open-air arbor in the center. I spent time in my crib there, and we still go back every year.

There were three places for hanging out at Camp Meeting: The Spring, where buckets no longer drew water for cooking and washing, but kids now engaged in water fights with plastic red cups, and older ones would sneak off for a kiss or clutch. The Stand, a large building in the corner full of candy and confection, where we ate french fries and played cards. And the old cemetery off of one corner, a place for pranks and daring.

The cemetery is gated off now, likely due to the sort of romping that went ignored when I was a child. Back then it was wide open, and we dashed through the headstones, without a care in the world. During the day, the place filled my young head with a false sense of importance. A large chunk of the headstones bore my last name in one of two spellings, a nod to my confused, illiterate, oddly-branching family tree. Still, these were my people, and having so much family in the place made me invincible here. It made this a place that I could roam at night, without the chills and tingles that plagued some of the others.

And the cemetery at night was different–a place for dares. A place to lure younger kids and frighten them. Later, a place to bring a sweetheart so that she could see how brave we were, and to possibly confuse that sensation of fear for something else… In this way the cemetery changed as quickly as we did, even as it stayed the same. Now it is just a cemetery. A sad and quiet place to visit with my wife, share stories from my past, and watch her marvel at the spattering of surnames that are like my own.

When I picked up Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and started reading, my own ghosts came and read along with me. Gaiman’s graveyard is a place of peace, adventure, and learning. A nature preserve by day, and a haunted hill at night. Dozens of generations of the deceased, going back to Celtic and Roman days, populate the book. And his story of a young boy growing up in this ancient cemetery, raised by ghosts and keen in the ways of the dead, reminded me very much of my old graveyard at Pleasant Grove Campground.

The book also reminded me of Ender’s Game, one of my favorite reads of all time. By the end of the book I was completely attached to the young protagonist, Nobody “Bod” Owens, in a way that I have not been since meeting Ender Wiggins. Like Ender, Bod is introduced to us at a very young age and we watch him mature quickly under harsh and unusual circumstances. I felt protective of Bod in the beginning for his fragility and then awed by the end of the book for his wisdom and strength. It is an inspiring journey for young and old readers alike.

The Graveyard Book begins with the brutal murder of Bod’s family when he is still in a crib and diapers. Toddling obliviously away from danger, the child ends up in a nearby cemetery where the resident ghosts argue about what to do with him. The Owens, an elderly couple long-deceased, decide to adopt the boy and raise him as their own. Taught in the ways of ghosts, and given powers entrusted to residents of the graveyard, Bod endures growing pains that will be familiar to readers of all ages. But Bod’s learning comes from fantastical adventures with the dead, the living, and some things in-between.

For all the death, ghouls, ghosts, and headstones in The Graveyard Book, this is chiefly a tale of living. It is about right and wrong, morality and injustice, and about making the most of the time we have. The sensation at the conclusion of this book it to get out and go do something. To travel and experience. To love without fear of losing. To cherish every breath and not labor on what comes after. This is a lesson that Bod learns early as his surfeit of self-preservation is seen by his mentor as a potential waste:

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.”

Each chapter of the book skips ahead to a different age and centers around a new tale or adventure. Bod interacts with a variety of cemetery denizens from thousands of years of British history. There is a new lore and language which pervades the book, small powers and rules and different types of dead that will appeal to anyone with an active imagination. But Gaiman keeps it simple, not overloading the reader with strange names and magical arts that distract from an elegant story.

The Graveyard Book will appeal to anyone over the age of twelve (possibly younger if your child is reading ahead of the curve). The larger print and gorgeous illustrations give the book a wonderful flow. Adults will also appreciate Gaiman’s unwillingness to compromise with his prose. His impressive vocabulary, and perfect restraint, will have young and old reaching for a dictionary several times.

All of this intellectual and moral growth makes The Graveyard Book an ideal read for young adults. Especially for the many who become fixated on death and dying and keep their worries to themselves. I certainly was one of these kids, and this book would have been welcomed by my hands 20 years ago. It is an exploration of the joy, magic, and uniqueness of living. For The Graveyard Book is as much a story of Bod’s deceased friends marveling at his living potential as it is him being fascinated by their graveyard magic.

The American Library Association awarded The Graveyard Book the John Newberry Medal for best children’s book. Get a copy for your child, then sneak it away for yourself when they are done (if you can get them to let it go).

One response to “Book Review: The Graveyard Book”

  1. I loved The Graveyard Book and Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. From his run on Sandman to this his latest book he almost never misses.

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