When a family is murdered by a mysterious killer, one of the intended victims is missing, a young, diapered boy, who had wandered off just before the crime took place. But the killer needed to complete the job. Fortunately for the boy, he was taken in by the late residents of a nearby graveyard. And when the spirit of his newly deceased mother asks for their help, the residents agree to raise her son. He is given to the care of the Owens couple and named “Nobody,” Bod for short, as he looks like “nobody but himself.”
In this Newbery Medal, Carnegie Medal and Hugo Award winning novel, it takes a graveyard to raise an actual corporate being, and there are many who chip in. Perhaps most important is Silas, resident of the worlds of the dead and the living. As Bod grows there are many interesting sorts who cross his path, a young witch lacking a gravestone, an unscrupulous dealer in antiques, a snake-like protector of a long-dead master, and an array of teachers. And there must, of course, be a girl, Scarlett by name, a living girl. Bod does venture out into the unprotected world beyond the graveyard gates, not always with permission. He wants to go to school like other kids, and does, with mixed results. He wants to buy a headstone for a friend who lacks one. He wants to spend time with Scarlett. As he enters his teen years, he determines to find the person who had killed his family.
This is not your usual coming-of-age story. Bod is indeed a likeable kid, good-hearted, innocent, easy to care about. One of Gaiman’s inspirations for this story was Kipling’s The Jungle Book, with Bod as Mowgli and the graveyard residents substituting, sometimes generically, for their animal counterparts in the earlier work. There is a section equivalent to Mowgli having been kidnapped by monkeys, a werewolf might be Akela. Bod’s nemesis is the killer Jack, the Shere-Khan of this tale. Each chapter jumps in time, and we see Bod take on new challenges as he ages. Of course, his home being a graveyard, the challenges he faces are not pedestrian. And finally, he faces an adult, mortal test that will define whether he actually gets to come of age or not.
There is so much in The Graveyard Book that is just flat-out charming that you will find, as I did, that your lips keep curling up at the corners. From Bod trying to find properly fitting clothing, to struggling to learn some of the unusual skills the locals have mastered, to coping with some of the lesser baddies who make life difficult for those around them, Bod will gain your allegiance and your affection.
The baddie, Jack, is a purely dark sort. No gray areas there. And that makes the central conflict one of pretty much pure good, against completely pure evil. There are plenty of moments of real danger for Bod and that keeps tension high. But there are nuances to other characters that add color and texture to what might otherwise have become a flat gray panel. These additions add heft to the story, and make one wonder larger thoughts about the limits of change, of redemption. This one is easy to recommend, to kids of all ages, but don’t wait too long. You never know when it might be…you know…too late.
PS – Disney has acquired the film rights for this and it is likely that it will emerge, someday, with a look similar to that of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The official website for the book
Neil Gaiman reads the entire book
This Literary Wiki page seems rather slight