Neil Gaiman is known and respected in the gothic community for many reasons. His comic book series The Sandman, which revolutionized the world of comics, stars a character called Death who became a fashion icon for goths for decades to come. His book Coraline brought creepy children’s tales to the public eye when it was made into a movie in 2009. My favorite work of his that I’ve read so far, however, is another kid’s book—The Graveyard Book.
This book is a tale for practically any age (the back recommends 10 and up, it does contain some mentions of violence). While certainly accessible to children, I found it perfectly enjoyable to read for the first time as an adult. There are many subtleties that might be missed by young readers (as they are often missed by the character Bod) that enrich the story for adults.
The Graveyard Book is a loose collection of chapters (literally) in the life of Nobody Owens from when he is first taken in by the graveyard as an infant to when he finally leaves it at the age of 15. The book begins with the brutal murder of Bod’s family by a mysterious man named Jack. Fortunately for Bod, even as a 1½ year old, he had a tendency to wander. Baby Bod obliviously crawls out of his crib and all the way up the hill to the nearby cemetery where he is taken in by the motherly, albeit ghostly, Mrs. Owens. As Bod grows up in the graveyard, he learns about life and death, friendship and bullies, witches and ghouls, and ultimately about the man who killed his family.
One of my favorite parts of this book was the character of Silas. In addition to being adopted by ghosts, Bod is taken under the wing of a man who becomes his guardian–a liminal member of the graveyard community who only comes out at night and is able to leave the confines of the cemetery, unlike its other residents. Although it is made quite obvious that Silas is a vampire, the fact is never explicitly stated and no mention is made of drinking blood. In a world over-saturated with vampires (don’t get me wrong, I love it), it was refreshing to see one written with such subtlety.
One of my other favorite characters is the Lady on the Grey. She has only two brief appearances in the book, but she leaves quite an impression. Appearing as a beautiful woman on a large white horse, she is personification of death—a female Grim Reaper of sorts. She is a figure of authority to the dead and with one sentence ends the argument over whether Bod should be taken in by the graveyard. Her primary purpose, however, seems to be to provide gentle reminders of mortality. I really appreciated the way in which this book treated death and mortality as topics to be discussed openly, not shunned, even in front of children.
Which brings me to my favorite chapter: “The Danse Macabre.” In this chapter, the citizens of the graveyard and of the town gather to dance together for one night. Although neither the ghosts nor the townspeople seem to remember it the next morning, the tradition serves as a momento mori for the town—and especially for Bod. He dances with the Lady on the Grey and realizes the next morning that he had been dancing as one of the living, not as one of the crowd who came down from the graveyard. After naively asking the Lady whether he may ride her horse, Bod is reminded that someday he will be on the other side of this dance.
“Can I ride him?” asked Bod
“One day,” she told him, and her cobweb skirts shimmered. “One day. Everybody does.”
This book is delightful and deep, approachable and exciting. Plus, the edition I read came with some lovely illustrations by Dave McKean, whom you may recognize as the cover artist for The Sandman. I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone, and I recommend that you buy a copy to keep on the bookshelf for your kids.
Have you read The Graveyard Book? What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions of great gothic books for kids?