Neil Gaiman’s newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is coming out today, June 18th. In honor of one of our favorite authors, Clare and I have decided to christen this week ‘Neil Gaiman Week’ and to review some of our favorite Gaiman books, starting with the Newberry Award-winning The Graveyard Book.
In 2008 I was lucky enough to hear Neil Gaiman speak at the National Book Festival, which is held every September in Washington DC. Mr. Gaiman read a passage from The Graveyard Book to the crowd, and told the audience a little bit about how the book came about. When his son was very young, the house that they lived in in Sussex, England did not have a yard, so he would take his son to a nearby graveyard to ride his tricycle. He said, “I remember thinking once how incredibly at home he looked there. I thought you could write something a lot like ‘The Jungle Book’ and set it in a graveyard.”
The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens, a young boy who is orphaned when a man murders his family. Bod is raised in a graveyard by ghosts and other creatures of the night. In Bod’s world, there are “the living and the dead, there are day-folk and night-folk, there are ghouls and mist-walkers, there are high hunters and the Hounds of God. Also, there are solitary types.” Bod grows up among the gravestones and learns much from the graveyard’s inhabitants. But as Bod grows older, the world of the living begins to creep into the graveyard, bringing with it some good people, but also a very evil person from Bod’s past.
The Graveyard Book is a book that profoundly moved me when I first read it. When I was a little girl, my parents read aloud to me every night. One of the stories that I would beg my father to read to me over and over again was Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I loved Mowgli’s story as a child because of the incredible adventures that he has. The animals were fierce and wild and the law of the jungle was not softened at all for the sake of children reading the story. The Jungle Book taught me as a child that the world is a wondrous, beautiful place but that it is also dark and dangerous. In 2008 Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book took me back to my childhood and to the lessons I had learned all those years ago.
The Graveyard Book shook me to my core and brought back some of my earliest, dimmest memories. It is dark book in some ways. The opening chapter is about the murder of the main character’s family, and most of the supporting characters are dead. But Gaiman employs words with a deft and masterful hand, and while the story may be dark, the tone of the book is sweet and gentle, with a wry humor that adults as well as children can enjoy. Gaiman certainly remembers what it is like to be a child, and respects children. He does not underestimate their intelligence as so many do, which is why this book has become one of my favorites. The world of children can be vibrant and happy, but can also be dark, scary, and filled with things that children have no say or control over. Neil Gaiman remembers this, and reminded me of it in his gentle way.
Just as Mowgli learned about the beauty and darkness in the world, Bod learns about the beauty and darkness in people. Jack London once wrote, “The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” Bod learns from his earliest moments what will happen to him, and every person, eventually—he will die. But he also learns from his friends in the graveyard the importance of truly living, not just existing.