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the graveyard book

2 february 2009

In Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal, an infant boy is spared when malevolent forces kill the rest of his family. The infant, upon whom many hopes and fears rest, is taken in by foster parents, and later given a thorough education by professors of various forbidden arts – professors who might seem sinister by the standards of bland, normal society, but who, within their own realm, are mighty simpatico. Our hero learns how to become invisible. With the help of a girl his age, he fights a mortal enemy.

Gaiman says that he owes "an enormous debt, conscious and, I have no doubt, unconscious, to Rudyard Kipling and the two volumes of his remarkable work The Jungle Book" (311). And of course, The Jungle Book is the archetypal children's story of a human infant raised by a different race of beings. But as you can see from my first paragraph, The Graveyard Book is also written in the immense local shadow of Harry Potter, as well as in the somewhat lesser and more immediate shadow of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight and its decent, protective vampires.

I liked The Graveyard Book somewhat more than either the Potter saga or Twilight, though. Despite content that may seem derivative even to 12-year-olds, Gaiman's book is nuanced, has a strong story line, and deploys its none-too-original characters in exciting ways. I used the word "vampire" in the last paragraph, for instance, but The Graveyard Book doesn't use the word at all. One only knows that the hero's mentor Silas is one of the Undead by recognizing arch little clues to his identity that are scattered around the novel. That's fun for 12-year-olds and intriguing to 49-year-olds, and it's one of Gaiman's best touches.

I also like Miss Lupescu, The Graveyard Book's answer to Professor Lupin, and I like Liza the witch, and I like the soft-spoken amateur historian Mr. Frost. And I certainly like Nobody "Bod" Owens, the intrepid hero of the novel, who, like Harry Potter, Lyra Belacqua, or Frodo Baggins, discovers that there are many more dangerous things in the Universe than have met his immediate eye while he was growing up – and who, like them, gathers the courage to deal with them.

This is a Newbery winner, so we know its hero will love to read. One of the "Newbery" moments in the novel occurs when Bod tussles with a neighbor over a copy of Robinson Crusoe. The fate of the world may be at stake, but there's always time for a few chapters of a classic.

The Graveyard Book begins with a truly creepy description of a family massacred in their beds. It's not as explicit as, say, In Cold Blood, but it's enough to give even a 49-year-old some anxious bedtimes; in fact, the narrative is even creepier because of its indirectness. Somehow, though, I doubt that this gory opening will cause a tenth of the concern that greeted the appearance of the word "scrotum" at the start of the 2007 Medalist The Higher Power of Lucky. Far better that our children read about the gratuitous slaughter of innocents than about a body part that half of them walk around permanently attached to.

Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. Illustrated by Dave McKean. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.