Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Graveyard Book--Neil Gaiman (Book Review)

I'd never read anything by Neil Gaiman before, and I'm not big into ghosts and the like, but everyone kept raving about The Graveyard Book (and they continue to, now that it's won the Newberry Award). Since my boys enjoy ghosts and scary things more than I do, I decided to share it with them as a read-aloud.

I'd heard Gaiman was funny, so when I started on page one and there was a man holding a knife walking through a house, I used a sort of tongue-in-cheek tone, ready for the punchline. I assumed we were supposed to think it was scary, and then we'd find out he'd been carving chicken or something.

When I realized that, no, Gaiman was actually beginning his childrens' book with a cold-hearted killer searching a house to kill a baby after having murdered two parents and a little girl, I was taken aback. And the kids? "It started out more creepy than I thought it would." (Evan, 8). "It wasn't what I expected." (Ben, 12)

Though the tone is more grisly, the initial premise is remarkably similar to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: both books begin with a baby's parents murdered by an evil man, the baby brought to strangers for protection from the killer. But my boys found The Graveyard Book's first chapter tedious. Meanwhile, Gaiman's constant referral to the killer as "the man Jack," drove Evan nuts.

"I'm sure the author's doing it for a reason," I told him. "Maybe he's trying to show that Jack isn't a character we should expect to get to know."

"I don't care the reason. We get that he's a man! Can you please, please, just call him Jack from now on?"

I dropped "the man," from every reference to Jack, and read on. The baby became a small boy named Nobody, Bod for short. This nickname gave me more read-aloud trouble. I do a fairly decent assortment of English accents, but I'm not perfect. I had pronounced the name the American way: "No-buddy." When Gaiman introduced the nickname Bod, I was stymied. Bod? Seriously? Rhymes with cod? Because when I think "bod," I think this: But maybe that's just me.

In any case, I chose to pronounce it "Bud," because that made sense with my previous "No-buddy" pronunciation and because it sounds like a nickname to me, rather than a gossip magazine term. Only, much later, a character misheard his name as Bob, so obviously I'd gotten it wrong.

But my kids didn't mind about the name. They just wanted to know when the action was going to start, and when Bod/Bud was going to get older than five, and what was the point of all this? Interestingly, Gaiman says he started writing the book at Chapter 4 and filled in the first three chapters later. For my kids, the book began at Chapter 3, when Bod was at an age they could relate to. And yet, they complained that once his Chapter 3 adventure was over, it had no effect on the rest of the plot (until the very end, but they didn't know that part when they were complaining). Ben said, "It's like a short story in the middle of the book, and then it's over and you move on to the next thing."

Ben's constant refrain every time I picked up the book, was, "I'm having a hard time getting into the story." Evan didn't complain as much, and he's quite vocal when he's not enjoying something, so I think he liked it more but didn't want to argue about it. From him, I heard a lot of, "I don't get its," usually followed by questions about character motivation. Why did Bod want to go to school? Why didn't the ghosts just tell Bod about the Danse Macabre? Why did Liza stop talking to him? and so on.

Overall evaluations?
Evan: I didn't really get the point of it.
Ben: By the time I started almost getting interested, it was about done. The battle scene at the end was pretty good. Except it wasn't really a battle scene, more like a chase scene.
And me: Neil Gaiman writes beautifully, and the characters were well-drawn. I didn't love the story, but I understand why people do. But the people who raved about it--those I read, anyway--are all adults. My question is, who's its audience, really?

You can listen to Gaiman read The Graveyard Book on his website. Portlanders may be interested to know that the animation for the movie that just came out of his book Coraline was done right here by Laika Entertainment.


  1. I've been wanting to read this one because of the raves. I love that you got your sons' thoughts on this.

  2. I read it aloud to my four kids and they all enjoyed it, but we had read Gaiman together before with Coraline. It's definitely a different book, and I imagine it won't appeal to everyone.

  3. I really appreciate hearing your experience reading it with your kids. I'm also interested in seeing what other kids make of it. I'll keep you posted on reactions from our library.

  4. I really loved this book, and my 11-year-old daughter loved it, too! But I suspect my 6- and 8-year-olds wouldn' least not yet.

  5. Really great review...funny too. I don't think this sounds like one for me. It was great to hear your boys' views on the book!

  6. Great review. I had to read it twice because I had unanswered questions the first time. I didn't realize the first time around that Silas is a vampire.

  7. Quick drive-by to say thanks to all for commenting. Carrie and Debi, I'm so glad to hear of some kids who enjoyed this one!

  8. I'm with your sons on this one. I went out and bought it the day it won the Newberry. I found it difficult to get through and I suspected many kids would too. I've not seen any of my students reading it yet.

    I don't think Silas is a vampire. How would he be able to get Bod into school if he can't go out in the daylight?

    But, see what I mean. That sort of thing should be clear to the readers. We should be left to wonder about more important issues.

  9. I'm so pleased there are other people who didn't like this! It just generally fell flat for me, and I didn't see any original ideas. All the love it's getting is just making me dislike it more, to be honest. My review was here:

  10. C.B. and Vasilly, we discussed many times whether Silas was a vampire or what the heck he was. The answer was a little too vague for our tastes.

    Fatalis and C.B. I read both of your reviews before writing mine, and was bolstered by the fact that we weren't the only ones not to fall in love with this book!

  11. I've been wondering if all the hype about this book is warranted. Thanks for an honest review. I may read it someday but will definitely need to be in the right mood.