It won the Newbery Medal in 2009, a prize going to the book each year that makes the largest contribution to American children’s literature. The Graveyard Book isn’t like most of the Newbery books in that it doesn’t deal with serious issues like race or war or poverty. In fact there was a fair amount of speculation the year it won that the Newbery’s were trying to be more “accessible” to readers by choosing something more popular. Whatever the motivation, this book merits the honor it received.
The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens. An assassin kills his mother, father and sister while he’s just a baby. He escapes and crawls into the nearby graveyard, where his parents (now newly-dead ghosts) beg the other ghosts to protect him.
Because this is a community that has never raised a living child, the boy is named Nobody, or Bod for short. He’s raised by Mr. and Mrs. Owens under the guardianship of the mysterious and wise Silas. Silas is not quite a ghost and not quite human; he’s also the only adult in the graveyard who can come and go and obtain necessities like food and clothing for Bod.
Bod grows up with his ghost family and learns some of the magic of the Graveyard, like moving through tombstones and disappearing. He learns history from the residents of the Graveyard and learns spelling from the tombstones. Still, his ghost family keep reminding him that he has a life to live outside the graveyard. Unfortunately, Jack (his family’s assassin) is still after him, and only in the Graveyard can Bod be kept safe.
When he’s five, he makes friends with a girl who visits the Graveyard. Her parents think Bod is an imaginary friend, and never dream there might be a real boy living in the Graveyard. As Bod grows older, he longs to know more about the world outside the Gates, and when he’s old enough to understand about Jack, he wants to avenge his family’s murder. But he’s still a child, and the Graveyard is his home, its residents his family.
There isn’t more I can tell you without telling you too much. But I will say this was a creative and satisfying fantasy read, and Bod is a likeable character, though he makes a few mistakes along the way (which always makes a character more real, in my opinion). The book is scary but not too scary for children; I would recommend this to any middle-schooler (or older).
I think what sets this book apart is Gaiman’s reminder that while death may be mysterious and exciting, life is for the living. Only the living can grow and take risks and have new experiences. Clearly Bod will have to leave the Graveyard at some point, but his family and friends take such good care of him, you find yourself dreading that moment. The conflict between his safety and his need to grow and explore is a conflict that applies to all of us.
The other thing that stands out about the book is Gaiman’s beautiful prose. This isn’t just cookie-cutter fantasy.
At the best of times his face was unreadable. Now his face was a book written in a language long forgotten, in an alphabet unimagined. Silas wrapped the shadows around him like a blanket, and stared after the way the boy had gone, and did not follow.
Of course, whether “getting out and living” means new friendships, learning, travel, or adventure, is up to you. Gaiman isn’t telling us what to do, just gently reminding us that a larger world is out there.