The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman, Neil. 2008. The Graveyard Book. Ill. By Dave McKean. New York:  Harper. ISBN 9780060530945


The Graveyard Book is a story about Nobody.  Nobody Owens that is.  When a strange man kills all of Bod’s family, the adventurous little one-year-old finds his way into the graveyard where the Owens protect him.  The majority of the graveyard believes that Bod should go back to the town because he is one of the living, not one of the dead.  However when the Lady on the Grey (Gaiman’s incarnation of death in The Graveyard Book) tells the dead to be charitable, the graveyard agrees to take Bod in.

In each chapter Nobody is a different age, growing up in fits and starts, not unlike childhood when viewed through the lens of adulthood. Like most children, Bod gets into trouble.  However, trouble in a graveyard looks very different than trouble in the town, for the most part.  While the Owens are Bod’s adoptive ghostly parents, they are not his guardian.  Silas, a dark mysterious being who lives in the chapel steeple, is Nobody’s guardian because he can leave the graveyard and get food (and eventually clothing, seeing as Bod runs around in a “grey winding sheet” for a while). 

One of the interesting aspects is the descriptions of the non-human elements of the graveyard.  At first glance, the ghouls are straightforward evil creatures.  To any child with a love of spooky stories, they have probably heard the word ghoul before and have an idea of what they are.  Gaiman forces the reader to approach his ghouls differently.  Instead of being malignant ghosts, which is sometimes how ghouls are portrayed, Gaimen’s ghouls are scavengers.  For example, a few times in the chapter “The Hounds of God” the city Ghulheim is mentioned.  However, as eerie as the name alone is, Bod’s description throws it into sharp relief.

                “Even from the path below Ghulheim, even from miles away, Bod could see that all the angels were wrong—that the walls sloped crazily, that it was every nightmare he had ever endured made into a place, like a huge mouth of jutting teeth.  It was a city that had been built just to be abandoned, in which all the fears and madnesses and revulsions of the creatures who built it were turned into stone.” (82)

The Hounds of God themselves are another example.  For the whole chapter they are called Hounds of God, and when Bod is rescued, he goes to find a list of magical creatures he had abandoned at the beginning of the chapter.  The only entry the reader is allowed to see is the entry for the Hounds of God, that states “Those that men call Werewolves.”  Then there’s Silas, but I’ll leave him a mystery for the reader.

The Graveyard Book moves along at a rather fast clip.  While there are slower sections, they never cause the story to lose momentum.  In fact, the novel reads more as a collection of short stories than a true novel.  Each chapter has its own fully completed plot.  There may be a few loose ends at the end of a chapter, but not so many that it becomes obviously a chapter as opposed to a complete story.

As far as setting is concerned, the dead are one of two clues about physical location.  Where would Celts, Romans, Catholics, poets, and farmers all live at some point?  The other telling remark is the fact that Scarlett moves to Glasgow, which while far, does not appear to be a completely impossible distance considering her family moved to town, then Glasgow and back.

At the end of the day, The Graveyard Book is a coming of age story.  It is about a boy growing up; the fact that it takes place in a graveyard full of ghosts doesn’t make it hard to relate to.  In fact, it offers a glimpse at life that most people forget children are aware of, death.  Several times, Silas points out that the dead are dead.  Their stories are told.  Bod can still write his story.  Mother Slaughter said something profound about growing up.  She said, “You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” (298)

This novel would be a great introduction to the short story.  It might be interesting for older kids to examine the double-plot, the individual plot of each chapter versus the over arching plot.   It might be fun to have younger kids write short stories about living with monsters (ghosts, vampires, bigfoot) then put them all together. 



Newbery Medal Winner 2009

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award finalist 2009

Cybil Award 2008



BookList (starred review) – “This is an utterly captivating tale that is cleverly told through an entertaining cast of ghostly characters. There is plenty of darkness, but the novel’s ultimate message is strong and life affirming.”

Kirkus- “Wistful, witty, wise—and creepy. Gaiman’s riff on Kipling’s Mowgli stories never falters, from the truly spine-tingling opening, in which a toddler accidentally escapes his family’s murderer, to the melancholy, life-affirming ending.”


Booklist. Sep. 15, 2008 Vol. 105, No. 2. Accessed via CLCD.

Kirkus Reviews. August 15, 2008 Vol. 76, No. 16. Accessed via CLCD.





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