Betsy's Reviews > The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
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's review
Jul 01, 2008

really liked it
Recommended to Betsy by: Monica Edinger
Read in July, 2008

I’ve noticed that there’s been an increased interest in the macabre in children’s literature lately. Sometimes when I’ve had a glass or two of wine and I’m in a contemplative mood I try weaving together a postulation that ties the current love of violent movies into this rise in children’s literary darkness. Is the violence of the world today trickling down into our entertainment? Hogwash and poppycock and other words of scoff and denial, says sober I. But I’ve certainly seen a distinct rise in the Gothic and otherworldly over the last few years, and one wonders if it’s because kids want more of that kind of stuff or publishers are merely getting less squeamish. All that aside, generally I’ll read a May Bird book or an Everlost title and they’ll be fun examinations of the hereafter, but not the kind of things that touch my heart. Great writing doesn’t have to transcend its genre. It just has to be emotionally honest with the reader. And The Graveyard Book is one of the most emotionally honest books I’ve yet to have read this year. Smart and focused, touching and wry, it takes the story of a boy raised by ghosts and extends it beyond the restrictive borders of the setting. Great stuff.

It starts with three murders. There were supposed to be four. The man Jack was one of the best, maybe THE best, and how hard is it to kill a toddler anyway? But on that particular night the little boy went for a midnight toddle out the front door while the murderer was busy and straight into the nearby graveyard. Saved and protected by the denizens of that particular abode (the ghosts and the far more corporeal if mysterious Silas), the little boy is called Bod, short for Nobody because no one knows his name. As he grows older, Bod learns the secrets of the graveyard, though he has to be careful. The man (or is it “men”?) who killed his family could come back for him. Best to stay quiet and out of sight. Yet as Bod grows older it becomes clear that hiding may not be the best way to confront his enemies. And what’s more, Bod must come to grips with what it means to grow up.

Can I level with you? You know Coraline? Mr. Gaiman’s previous foray into middle grade children’s literature. Come close now, I don’t want to speak too loudly. Uh... I didn’t much care for it. WAIT! Come back, come back, I didn’t mean it! Well, maybe I did a tad. It was a nice book. A sufficient story. But it was very much (new category alert) an adult-author-to-children’s-author-first-timer-title. Gaiman appeared to be finding his sealegs with Coraline. He took the old Alice in Wonderland trope which adult authors naturally gravitate to on their first tries (see: Un Lun Dun, Summerland, The King in the Window, etc.). Throw in some rats, bees, and buttons, and voila! Instant success. But Coraline for all its readability and charm didn’t get me here [thumps chest:]. I didn’t feel emotionally close to the material. Now why it should be that I’d feel closer emotionally to a book filled with a plethora of ghosts, ghouls, night-gaunts, and Hounds of God, I can only chalk up to The Graveyard Book's strong vision.

My husband likes to say that the whole reason Buffy the Vampire Slayer worked as a television show was that it was a natural metaphor for the high school (and eventually college) experience. Likewise, The Graveyard Book has this strong,strange, wonderful metaphor about kids growing up, learning about the wider world, and exploring beyond the safe boundaries of their homes. There's so much you can read into this book. I mean, aren’t all adults just ghosts to kids anyway? Those funny talking people whose time has passed but that may provide some shelter and wisdom against the wider, crueler world. Plus Mr. Gaiman also includes characters in Bod's world that kids will wish they had in their own. Silas, a man who may be a vampire (though the word is never said) is every child's fantasy; A mysterious/magical guardian/friend who will tell you the truth when your parents will not.

One thing I particularly liked about the book was the fact that Bod makes quite a few careless or thoughtless mistakes and yet you don’t feel particularly inclined to throttle him because of them. Too often in a work of fiction a person isn’t properly put into the head of their protagonist. So when that character walks off and does something stupid there’s the sense (sometimes faint, sometimes not) that they deserved it and you’re not going to stick around and read about somebody that dumb, are you? But even when Bod is at his most intolerable, his most childishly selfish and single-minded, you can understand and sympathize with him. Bod is no brat, a fact that implies right there that he is someone worth rooting for. We see our own young selves in Bod, and we root for him as a result. And as Bod reaches each stage in his growth, he encounters experiences and personalities that help him to reach maturity. That’s a lot to put on the plate of a l’il ole fantasy novel, particularly one that’s appropriate for younger kids.

And it is appropriate too. Don’t let the fact that the first sentence in the book (“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”) put you off. The murder of Bod’s family is swift, immediate, and off-screen. What remains is just a great fantasy novel that has the potential to appeal to both boy and girl readers. Kid wants a ghost story? Check. Kid wants a fantasy novel set in another world appropriate for Harry Potter fans? Check. Kid wants a “good book”. That’s my favorite request. When the eleven-year-old comes up to my desk and begs for “a good book” I can just show them the cover and the title of this puppy and feel zero guilt when their little eyes light up. A good book it is.

I guess that if I have any objections at all to the title it has something to do with the villains. They’re a bit sketchy, which I suppose is the point, but we live in an era where children’s fantasy novels spend oodles of time defining their antagonists’ motivations and histories. Gaiman’s more interested in his hero, which is natural, but the villains’ raison d’être is just a bit too vague for the average reader. Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that Bod’s family is slaughtered at the start of this tale you wouldn’t necessarily know whether or not to believe that these people are as nasty as we've been told.

That said the book’s a peach. I once heard someone postulate that maybe Neil Gaiman wrote it just so that he could play with the sentence “It takes a graveyard to raise a child.” Unlikely. Fun, but unlikely. I mean, he does make a casual allusion that isn’t far off from that phrase, but he never goes whole hog. This book doesn’t feel like it was written to back up a joke. It feels like a book written by a parent with children growing up and moving out. It’s a title that tips its hat to kids making their way in the world, their pasts behind them, their futures unknown. This is not yet another silly little fantasy novel, but something with weight and depth. The fact that it just happens to be loads of fun to boot is simply a nice bonus. Highly recommended.

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03/05/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-32)

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Monica Edinger Yes!!!

message 31: by Jean (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jean Have you read his short story collection? It has a story in it about a boy who is raised in a graveyard who makes friends with a girl who was killed because she was a "witch." I'm wondering if the book is an extension of the short story. It was near the top of my pile to read, so I guess I'll have to bump it up a little.

Betsy Must be since he does indeed befriend a ghost who was killed as a "witch". What was the short story collection?

message 29: by Jean (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jean The story was "The Witch's Headstone" in "M is for Magic." If you like audiobooks, this was a good one because he reads it and the stories are all different.

Betsy Looks like my library system has it in e-audio book form. Maybe I'll download it. Thanks!

message 27: by Edie (new) - rated it 5 stars

Edie Jean, that witch character girl does appear in this book and is one of my favorite characters (she's full of petty jealousy and unfulfilled hopes and dreams). I too loved this book but did feel the reasons behind the parents' murder were never fully explained and a weakness of the story line. Better perhaps to just have bumped them off through the plague or something and deal with Bod's double life, a graveyard child who somehow has to return to the real world (like lions raised in captivity and then reintroduced to the wild).

Sandi Terrific review!

Samantha Grrrrrrr. I should've waited to write my review before I read yours. Now everything I write will just feel derivative.

A great review.


Betsy Well, you know me. I just live to crush the souls of others. Thanks for reading!

message 23: by [deleted user] (new)

i haven't been in the mood to read the book yet, but, regarding your observations on the rise in macabre lit: a patron at my library today pointed out that numbers 3 through 9 on the bestseller list had the words "death" or "dead" in the title. . .;)

message 22: by MB (What she read) (last edited Dec 10, 2008 02:34PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

MB (What she read) Roald Dahl was macabre. Diana Wynne Jones may be a little? The Three Investigators series played on macabre. Lemony Snicket has macabre elements. The Goosebumps series is macabre. Some children gravitate towards gothy reading. I loved it then and still do!

Or maybe this type of reading goes in cycles? Maybe we're just rebelling against what our parents thought we should read?

message 21: by Mike (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mike I think the macabre has been in children's stories for a long time. Only recently has it been sucked out of kiddie lit, wrongly, I say. Kids can take a lot more than we think.

I also agree that the book could have gone more into why the family was killed and just why exactly Bod was a threat to the Jacks of All Trades.

JG (The Introverted Reader) Jean, that story is a chapter in the book. I read it in a different short story collection and that's the reason I read this book.

This was a wonderful review, Elizabeth.

message 19: by Kyle (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kyle I disagree with all the chat about more explanation with the Jacks. it was just right: as a child would see it.

I'm totally fed up with JK Rowling and her seventeen books of thousands of pages of explanations from aged, cowled wizards who use semi-latin phrases to explain things that need not be explained, anyway.

I think Neil Gaiman is a far subtler writer (and willing to allow the readers their chance to dream on their own) to plunge into great detail about such things.

This book was truly brilliant.

message 18: by CinnamonHopes (last edited Feb 24, 2009 04:12PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

CinnamonHopes I have to say, I liked and agreed with most of your review. Most, because I think your comment about the rise of the macabre in children's literature is nonsense.

Of the great collections of tales for children, the most well-known stories most are creepy, and are intended to scare or upset the listener.

Baba Yaga eats people. She lives in a house surrounded by a fence of bones, and gives light to a child which is carried in the skull of a human.

The Little Mermaid walks upon feet which feel to her as they are being shredded by knives; her love marries another and her options are to murder him, or float upon the sea as foam, lost and without a soul.

The Little Girl Who Trod on a Loaf is dragged to Hell and tormented by demons, by insects and snakes until 1 child takes pity and prays for her.

This no recent trend. The best stories, the timeless stories are dark, are deep, and they scare.

message 17: by Quin (new) - rated it 5 stars

Quin Edie wrote: "I too loved this book but did feel the reasons behind the parents' murder were never fully explained and a weakness of the story line. Better perhaps to just have bumped them off through the plague or something and deal with Bod's double life..."

I think what people are missing is that there was a prophecy that the Jacks would end at the hands of a boy from that family (I'm afraid I don't remember the exact wording of it), and I think as a Jack it would make rather more sense to make sure that Bod is out of the picture, as well as his parents (who otherwise could have another boy) and while he's at it, get the sister to avoid some sort of "next generation" problem.

And had Neil killed the parents in a traditional way (illness, car crash, etc.), then the graveyard folk would have no reason to keep him since he would be safe in the "real world" (as is mentioned several times).

I hope this helped.

Polstar this is a great review. I personally think that children's literature has always been 'dark' - The Brothers Grimm anyone?

Steven Harbin Excellent review!

message 14: by Dave (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave "increased interest in the macabre in children’s literature" - really?

The Brothers Grimm would disagree. :)

1. Baba Yaga eats people.
2. The Little Mermaid walks upon feet which feel to her as they are being shredded by knives.
3. The Little Girl Who Trod on a Loaf is dragged to Hell
4. The Brothers Grimm

I know nothing of these things. Closes the little mermaid I guess but most what was said about that story is unknown to me. Were has my childhood gone!

message 12: by Lydia (new)

Lydia Perversius MB wrote: "Roald Dahl was macabre. Diana Wynne Jones may be a little? The Three Investigators series played on macabre. Lemony Snicket has macabre elements. The Goosebumps series is macabre. Some childr..."

How can you consider Roald Dahl macabre?Sure,he was somewhat gross at some parts,but macabre?Now,Lemony Snicket,THAT one was fit for the word.Also,if you have read Raymond Feist,you would add him to the list,as well.His books are not the usual medieval fantasy,they show the story and background in a rather creepy,macabre,and yet realistic way.

message 11: by Lydia (new)

Lydia Perversius cook777 wrote: "
1. Baba Yaga eats people.
2. The Little Mermaid walks upon feet which feel to her as they are being shredded by knives.
3. The Little Girl Who Trod on a Loaf is dragged to Hell
4. The Brothers Gri..."

Baba Yaga eats children!

message 10: by Beth (new) - rated it 4 stars

Beth Bonini Really thoughtful, interesting review.

message 9: by Jenn (new)

Jenn children's lit has a fantastic history of being grisly ;) i don't think it's a new trend.

Kitty I think the darkness for children's lit has always been there - you're just realizing it for the first time. Heck, in comparison to Victorian children's literature TGB is very tame indeed. Did you know Bram Stoker wrote and published a children's tale that stars two child serial killers who torture animals, and ends with them tricking a mother and father into blowing the heads off of their own newborns before crushing them to death with the bodies of their dead children?

What about Snow White torturing her mother to death by making her dance in a pair of red hot, cast iron shoes? Or if you want something more modern how about The Silver Crown (1668) in which a little girl witnesses a police offer's head blown off right in front of her and her whole house (with baby) go up in flames before she's taken hostage by a supernatural cult that throws her in a dark cell to rot. I could go on, I really could.

I like your review, but I think next time you're in a wine drankin' mood you should contemplate outside the real of your own experience.

Cullan "I mean, aren’t all adults just ghosts to kids anyway? Those funny talking people whose time has passed but that may provide some shelter and wisdom against the wider, crueler world." One of the most insightful things I've read on this matter. Thanks! :D

Lesley Arrowsmith I believe that the book was written partly as a tribute to Kipling's Jungle Book (there's a sequence which very much puts you in mind of the bandarlog!)

Taryn I picked this book up in my school's library when I was in the third grade and even then I fell in love with it. My mother was horrified when I described the book to her and my grandmother thought it was something for satanists and when you think about a 3rd grader reading something like this and describing it to an adult it might just seem like that. This book stayed in my mind for years and I'd recently remembered the name and read it again, I'm a high school student now and as before I still love this book I would also recommend it for the young reader (not too young it might give them nightmares) and plan too let my brother read it when he is of age. I don't think this is a novel that you could categorize as something "dangerous" meaning something that could be contributing to the rise of violence in children because this book doesn't dwell on the gruesome and hellish. In my opinion it's the perfect book for young readers who are willing to really sit down and think about a book. I will say I only gave it four stars because I was a little sad about the ending was hoping there would be a sequel but hen I thought about it and realized this doesn't need one. Bod's journey as a child has ended and now he leaves the graveyard to pursue other things and we have to accept that. I did make myself feel better with the possibility that Bod will be buried in the graveyard when he passes and be reunited with his loved ones once his journey has ended.

message 4: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy I really enjoyed your honest and thoughtful review! I did some pondering on this genre of YA fiction, and why it is the way it is......I'll warn folks now, I'm writing based on my own experience and ideas, not on "truth".

I grew up reading Grimm's fairy tales with my father and sister, the real ones. Yes, they are pretty violent, but I loved them, and I wasn't frightened. They made sense to me. I also read several German children's books (Strumwelpeter, etc) that discussed terrible things happening if a child chose to be naughty (like, burning one's house down if playing with matches). Again, they made logical sense to me....and also were funny!

On a lighter note, around age 10, I discovered the stories of John Bellairs, and just adored his characters! It was then I also fell in love with Edward Gorey's unique art and prose. I felt like a kindred spirit of the young people in Bellairs' stories, whose best friends were the older eccentric professors, librarians, and pastors of the towns. (Gorey was the original illustrator for Bellairs' books.) I felt validated as a child, for my own curiosity of the "different", the "bizarre", and perhaps, what adults around me considered to be taboo, so was never really discussed. My family embraced my curiosity, as it was pretty much their experience as well, so if something seemed strange, it was always looked up, and discussed.

Gaiman's stories feel similar to the stories of my youth in his use of mythology, the young person's natural curiosity and intensity of feelings, and how life often is for some people. Mythology is needed in every generation, something mysterious that isn't quite understood intellectually, but merely felt deep inside. Gaiman is one of many authors who tells these kinds of stories, and I am so thankful for his work!

Thanks again for your review that got me to thinking this morning! :) All the best!

Geoff Ha! Good review. I liked what you said about a book needing to "transcend its genre". It just has to be good, plain and simple. Even Henry James (king of the convoluted over written story) admitted that a good book is a good book.

Stella The villain's motivation was too vague for me, too. Nevertheless, I love this book!

message 1: by Joeri (new) - added it

Joeri Ryckaseys A very strong and analytic review. You notice the comeback of gothic in literature. I'm a huge fan of gothic (and also horror, but gothic and horror are not the same). Gothic was "invented" in the beginning of the 19th century. The "founders" of the genre were Horace Walpole (Castle of Otranto) and Anne Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho). The reason why gothic broke through was because of the right time. It was in the middle of the industrial revolution. The world people know was changing and peole sought their escape in a world symbolizing their fears or where melancholie was present. That's why Marry Shelly's Frankenstein was so succesful, it resembles the fears for how far science could (and will?) go. That gothic now knows a sort of comeback is probably the same... because of the time we live in. Ofcourse this is just my humble opinion.

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