Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is the perfect “ghost tale” to get everyone ready for Halloween. The book begins with a cold and efficient murderer at his work. He kills a family, unknowingly leaving behind a toddler who escapes the killer by slipping out of his house and into the nearby graveyard. Once inside the graveyard, the boy is taken in by a ghost couple and mysterious guardian who commit to raising, educating, and keeping him safe. After a bit of debate amongst the graveyard’s residents, the boy is named Nobody Owens (“Bod”) because, as his adoptive mother puts it, “He looks like nobody but himself.”
Nobody’s family, guardian, and friends keep him safe and gently guide him from toddler to teen. His small world is full of fantastical characters, creatures, scary places, and adventures that will keep younger readers eagerly reading page after page. But, there is more at the heart of Nobody's tale that I hope even those parents wary of witches and ghouls will take the opportunity to find. At the center of Gaiman’s bizarre world, in the middle of his graveyard, there is a normal boy full of curiosity, bravery, loyalty, innocence and empathy. Nobody wrestles with his need to explore and experience the world outside for himself while trying to respect the wishes of those who love him. He admirably admits his mistakes and champions kindness and friendship; he confronts evil without reserve and does not shy away from or leave to anyone else the sometimes tough and ugly responsibilities that belong to him -- even when he knows the personal cost. While Nobody’s coming of age is wrapped in dramatic metaphor, the book’s harrowing climax lays bare the tragic transition from child to adult, so common we barely notice.
My childhood, when I still think of it, feels like a graveyard populated with the memories of loved ones, high adventure, monsters, and long stretches waiting for time to pass. These memories alternately haunt and comfort, guide and remind me of all the potential bound up in a growing child. I don’t know if Gaiman intended to make literal the figurative resting places of our youth, but the only thing surprising about this boy raised by ghosts and surrounded by scary creatures, and scarier men, is how normal Nobody Owens turns out to be.
The book is stamped with a Newbery Medal, is a 2009 Hugo Award winner, a number one New York Times best seller, and is written by an author with an established body of work. If you’re just looking for a quality read, The Graveyard Book, hardly needs my recommendation, but it is the right book for the season, safe to share with fifth or sixth graders on up.
Brad Tate is an avid reader, runner, and financial industry risk consultant. He resides in the Village of Clemmons, NC with his wife and three children.