The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Oct 28, 2015

This review was supposed to be in another group of three. But once I started writing, I couldn't condense what I wanted to say in 500 words, so here you go.

I've had this book on my October to-read list for at least three years, but I finally made it a priority this year (thanks to it being our book club read for the month). In many ways, it was exactly what I was expecting: spooky, creepy, with just a touch of the bizarre. But in other ways, I was in for a thrilling adventure, the creativity of which I was not expecting.

It is a retelling of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and opens with a chilling scene: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." The man has already murdered the mother, father, and young daughter and is on his way up the stairs to find the final member of the family . . . a toddler boy. Seriously, if you can make it past that first scene, you'll be okay (although not incredibly descriptive, if you're a mom, it will give you have nightmares).

When the man reaches the baby's crib, he is surprised to find it empty. Completely unaware of the danger he was in, the little boy climbed out, scooted down the many flights of stairs, and toddled off up the street to the nearby graveyard. There he is rescued by Mistress and Master Owens, who have been dead for hundreds of years. They agree to raise the boy (who they name Nobody Owens, or Bod for short) as their own with Silas, a Friend of the Graveyard, volunteering to be the boy's guardian.

The reader watches Bod's unorthodox upbringing, all while knowing that there is someone out there who wants to kill him.

Before I say anything else, I want you to know that I enjoyed this book tremendously. It was clever and gripping and left my heart pounding. I loved Bod in his little winding sheet. He was quiet and curious and adventurous. Growing up in a graveyard gave him a unique perspective on death (in fact, when Silas warns him about the danger that lies outside the graveyard, Bod replies, "So? It's only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead").

But sometimes, it's easier for me to articulate what I didn't like about a particular book more than what I did, and I feel like that's the case with this one. I was disappointed with three things, and I'll try to share those as concisely as possible. Also, I tried to write about it without spoilers, but I couldn't do it. So this is probably more for those of you have already read it than for those of you who haven't. Just consider yourself warned: SPOILERS AHEAD!

One of the things that bothered me the most was all of the secrecy surrounding Jack (the villain) and his motive for trying to kill Bod. There were little hints given infrequently throughout the book, but these did more to confuse than enlighten me. Usually I love this type of foreshadowing as I try to put the pieces together before the final reveal, but this time, I truly felt like I was grasping at something insubstantial.

And then, when I finally, finally learned the what and the why behind Jack, I was disappointed.
It was still vague, first of all, but also, just pretty lame. There was a lot going on behind the scenes (a pretty intense battle, as a matter of fact) that, although fairly significant, was merely alluded to. I guess I just felt like it would not have hurt the story at all if certain things had been revealed earlier in the story, and I think it would have actually helped everything else get fleshed out a little more, particularly in the area of the prophecy surrounding Bod (which I didn't understand at all).

That same disappointment also surfaced in regards to Scarlett, a little (very much alive) friend of Bod's when he's five years old. After several months, she moves away, but she moves back at the end of the book when they're both in their teens. I was so excited to have her back and thought she was going to help Bod with his transition into the real world. Instead, they reconnect, defeat the villainous Jacks of All Trade, and then her memory is erased. While I admit that everything she saw and did probably would have been very traumatic, I was so sad that after so many years, their friendship could not be preserved. There were just lots of little details about the ending that seemed poorly planned and poorly executed. When a story has set everything up so well, and it has so much potential, it makes a disappointing ending even more so.

But the very hardest thing for me to accept about the story was Silas' confession at the end (and again, I'm still in spoiler mode . . . ). Silas plays the part of Bod's mentor. He's not alive and he's not dead but seems to be somewhat trapped between the two. He is wise and kind and brave, and he was my favorite character. But at then end, he told Bod something that made me cringe. He said, "I have not always done the right thing. When I was younger . . . I did worse things than Jack. Worse than any of them. I was the monster, then, Bod, and worse than any monster." I think there was a part of me that suspected something like this about Silas since it seemed like his existence was a sort of punishment and that he would never feel the peace of death, but hearing him say those words really hurt. The man Jack is a terribly evil man, and it was hard to accept that Silas could have been worse than him. It's not that I didn't believe such a change was possible, but it was still sickening to know that the person I felt was the most noble could have also been the most despicable. Betrayals are always hard for me, and even though Silas didn't really betray Bod, I still felt like he wasn't quite as honorable as I had hoped.

But now that I have all those things off my brain, I feel like I'm free to say that this book was an incredibly enjoyable way to spend a few days in October. The setting was one of the things I loved about this book. It left a very vivid picture in my mind, and I can still easily transport myself right back to the tall, skinny home at the bottom of the hill or the mausoleum with its long flight of dark steps or the Potter's Field where Liza (my second favorite character) resided. This book had so many things going for it, and I've already been recommending it, flaws and all, to readers 12 and up.  


  1. Have you read The Jungle Book? Because I think this one is more based on than a retelling, mainly because of the three things you pointed out. Mowgli doesn't have an evil conspiracy hanging over him, none of his mentors are vampire analogs, and the whole human friendship thing is gone. Like Mowgli he is raised by aliens and eventually has to return home, but a lot of the themes and tensions are completely different.

    I recommend it for 8 and up, but suggest co-reading the first chapter which is so much more creepy. Also, there's a graphic version coming out that is also pretty good.

    I think the revelation of Silas's past didn't bother me as much because there's a trope of evil vampires going good (Angel and Spike of Buffy) so I'm more used to it. So once I figured out what he was, I accepted that as part of his backstory and it didn't hit me as hard at the end.

    1. I mulled over what word to use to describe the connection between The Graveyard Book and The Jungle Book. And it's funny because I actually didn't use "based on" because I felt like it implied too much similarity whereas "retelling" (to me at least) seemed to presume a more flexible interpretation.

      Also, I guess I probably err on the side of holding back on a lot of books until my kids are a little more mature (and at my book club, the general consensus seemed to be that this one was for upper-elementary aged kids). My oldest is less than a year away from being 8 and I don't think I'll be comfortable with even reading it aloud to him at that point. That's why recommendations are so tricky though because every child's development and readiness is so different.

      Yes, I probably just don't read enough vampire books. ;-)

      Thanks for your thoughts, Beth!

  2. I've never read a Neil Gaiman book, though he's been on my radar for years now as an author I'd probably enjoy. I'm just not sure where to start with him, I know he can be hit and miss and I've read so many conflicting reviews. But since I trust you, I think I'll start with this book (although probably not till next year, since he clearly needs to be read in October).

    1. I think this one would be a good one to start with of his. The only other books I've read of his are The Wolves in the Walls and Chu's Day (both picture books) and Fortunately, the Milk, but I feel like this one is substantial enough to really give you a good taste of his style.


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