TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Wow, it's been a long time since I posted a review here! Full disclosure, it's also been a long time since I finished a teen book. Don't get me wrong, I've started quite a few (Barry Lyga's "Hero-Type" was probably the closest I came to completion), but I seemed to put each book down for one reason or another. I've also been reading more adult-oriented fiction lately, so let me know if you want to hear about David Baldacci's "Divine Justice" (the Camel Club returns!) or Jonathan Kellerman's latest Alex Delaware novel, "Bones."
Oh, but I did plow delightedly through Neil Gaiman's lovely, wry, deeply touching "The Graveyard Book," which I'll do my best to recap here. In "The Graveyard Book," we have a series of interconnected stories, each of which are self-contained incidents in the life of Nobody Owens, an orphaned baby raised by the spirits of a graveyard. Yup, if you just read that and said, "WHAT?!", try to remember it's Neil Gaiman we're talking about here. Trust me, it works.
At the outset of the story, Nobody is only a baby as he crawls away from "the man Jack," a knife-wielding assassin who has just killed his family. The baby wanders over to the graveyard, where dead spirits whose bodies are buried there have a sort of second life. After much discussion, the dead Mr. and Mrs. Owens are allowed to keep the baby, renamed Nobody, and raise him with all the rights and privileges of the graveyard. As he grows up, Nobody, unlike other living beings, can see and communicate with all the spirits of the graveyard, and he can literally fade into the background. Nobody (or "Bod" as he's known) is schooled by long-dead poets, ancient Romans, and Victorian era school teachers, which leads to some truly hilarious moments for the reader. Bod also has a guardian in Silas, the caretaker of the graveyard, who hovers between the worlds of the living and the dead. Silas is shadowy, mysterious, and unfailingly stern, but he cares deeply for Bod and risks his life several times to protect him. The relationship between Bod and Silas is utterly devoid of any romanticism or sentimentality, and it works all the better for it. Every ounce of feeling between the two is hard earned.
As you might expect, Bod has lots of adventures while growing up, including several harrowing trips to an ancient Druid tomb guarded by a sinister presence. He also passes through a ghoul gate and enters a hell-like dimension. For me, the ghoul gate story was the scariest and most disturbing part of the novel. While you might think a story set largely in a graveyard would be morbid or dark, let me remind you again that it's Neil Gaiman at work here! "The Graveyard Book" is more a story of friendship, family, love, and loyalty than a horror novel. Interestingly, much of the true evil Bod encounters comes from the "real" world of the living, whether through school bullies or "the man Jack's" twisted society of killers. So while elements here may be dark, the violence is never depicted in an obvious way. Instead, there's more an ominous threat or a sense of foreboding lingering around the edges of Bod's life. But there are also great moments of levity — some of the tombstone inscriptions will make you laugh out loud — and good humor here.
I absolutely loved "The Graveyard Book." I think it's a great novel for boys and girls in 5th grade and higher. As I said, there are some dark themes here, but middle school kids can easily handle it. They'll love Bod's adventures, his sense of daring and responsibility, and the magic and wonder woven beautifully throughout the story. Plus, as I mentioned, it's just plain funny at times. I'd also say that adults, even non-Gaiman fans, will find a lot to like here, as the depth of the characters and the complexity of the relationships add a richness to the story. Please give this one a try. I promise you won't be disappointed!