Newbery Project #5: 2009’s The Graveyard Book

graveyardpicI wonder if the selection committee was trying to pick something more public-friendly for the award in 2009, after 2008 when they picked one of the weirder books to ever grace the list. (More on Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! next week, obviously.) Neil Gaiman is one of the most famous and beloved authors working today, and in 2009 the Newbery committee decided he should get to add their medal to his long list of accolades.

I wish I’d read The Jungle Book. Gaiman is forthcoming in explaining that this book is directly inspired by Kipling’s classic. BUT, my only knowledge of The Jungle Book is a vague memory of the Disney movie and that Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz gave their kid the middle name Mowgli. I would probably be better able to evaluate this book if I knew more about it’s source material. But here we are.

So, a purely stand-along run-down of the book: A boy (Nobody Owens, or Bod for short) is raised by ghosts after his family is brutally murdered and he escapes to a graveyard. The book collects a serious of episodes from Bod’s life growing up in the graveyard and periodically checks in with a more over-arching plot that follows the man who killed Bod’s family and who is still hunting him down.

It’s good! I read this book first when it was awarded the Newbery. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hadn’t reread it since, but was looking forward to it, since I had such fond memories.

I don’t think I liked it as much the second time. The first few chapters dragged quite a bit, especially the third in the ghoul gate. Yes, you got tricked into going into a ghoul gate, it’s pretty terrible down there. It was terrible for, like, 20 pages! Just a bunch of flying through a horrible-sounding place being scared. It was only Chapter Three, so we knew he was going to get out in the end. I kept flipping pages to see how long I had until Chapter Four when he would finally just get the hell out of there.

Gaiman says in the Acknowledgements that he started with Chapter Four, and I kind of wish the book had started there, too, with maybe a prologue that told the story of how Bod got to the graveyard. Once we get to Chapter Four the book moves along as a better clip. Watching Bod interact with the outside world is compelling. I also enjoyed any moment we got to peek into the story of the Jacks who tried to kill Bod in the first place and Silas, his guardian, and whateverthehell it was he was doing on his missions outside the graveyard. I actually wish we’d gotten quite a bit more about Silas and Mrs. Lupescu and all that, but I can understand why we didn’t. This is Bod’s story.

Overall it just doesn’t grab me the way the best Newbery books do. I don’t even like it as much as Coraline, Neil Gaiman’s other middle grade novel. I think Coraline does a better job of actually capturing the deep fears and wants of children than Bod does. Bod says he is scared (rarely, but sometimes) and he says he wants things, but it was hard for me to feel any personal connection to these wants or fears. I think maybe it’s because Bod is distinctly immune to the most common fears of children (and people). He knows death is not really that bad (in fact he knows what dead is, which is the biggest privilege and most impossible to imagine) and everyone he loves is already dead, so he hardly has to fear losing them.

Would kids like it: Definitely. It’s full of adventure and it’s relatively scary, which is kid gold.

Are there “funny bits”? Nope! Not a funny book at all. But not oppressively sad.

Do I understand why it won? Certainly. It’s well-written and an exciting, beautiful story of family and growing up. It was a bit unusual for a writer who does not primarily write for children to get the award, but there are not very many people who write for so many different audiences in the first place, so it was unusual mostly because Neil Gaiman is an unusual kind of writer.

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