Winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal Award and the Hugo Award, Gaiman's crackerjack new children's thriller begs the question: what would happen if a child is given the opportunity to face his fears before he knows
there is anything he might fear? In this case an adventurous toddler climbs out
of his crib in the middle of the night, thumps down the stairs and into the
street even as his parents and older sibling are being brutally murdered in
their beds. By the time the knife-wielding killer realizes one of his prey has
escaped, curiosity has compelled the tot to wander into a neighboring graveyard
where its spectral residents recognize the imminent danger and are moved to
shield the child.
Once the immediate situation settles down the group engages in a spirited discussion of the merits of actually keeping the 18-month-old boy and protecting him forever from harm, safe within the confines of the abandoned cemetery. Obviously there are logistics to be ironed out. After all, a live boy needs sustenance and clothing, so a not-living/not-dead cemetery resident named Silas volunteers to be the child's guardian. He will venture beyond the graveyard walls to purchase the necessary items. And Mr and Mrs Owens who had always been childless and have been dead for a few hundred years offer to adopt the child whom, by vote, they name Nobody Owens - not the first, nor the last, name that some readers may find too clever by half. However, "It is going to take more than a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. 'It will,' said Silas, 'take a graveyard.'" Thus the entire graveyard population signs on to share their particular talents and abilities in his upbringing.
Thus from the first moment he wakes in the Owens's "fine little tomb" the guileless Bod, as he is known, is given the Freedom of the Graveyard, compete with all its privileges; privileges that include the ability to slip through locked doors and gates and the complete run of a place that most youngsters would frankly find a bit scary. The naturally inquisitive Bod not only learns his ABC's and history from those who experienced it firsthand, he also learns such nifty skills as "fading" and "dreamwalking." He counts young ghosts among his many playmates and even has a brief friendship with a live girl his own age whose mother allows her to play in the cemetery.
Bod is a charming child who is mostly obedient and always caring; both qualities that land him in more than his share of trouble. As he grows older he begins to strain at the limits placed on him by his adopted extended family and he wanders beyond the gates of the graveyard's safe harbor. His flights into the unknown are no more than any imaginative child would conceive given similar circumstances and, fortunately for him, those special ghostly powers he's picked up put him in a good position to get out of various jams.
There still is the ever-present threat from the "man Jack" of the first chapter knifing incident to consider. After all, what self-respecting children's book doesn't have the sword of Damocles hanging over the protagonist's head? And true to the genre, Gaiman makes certain that Bod, even in all his pre-adolescent rebelliousness, is prepared step-by-step to eventually confront a nemesis that lurks menacingly in the outside world.
In all despite brief bouts with rather grisly evildoers this is a most satisfying tale suitable for children ten and older. Gaiman's lyrical prose not only mitigates the book's more unpleasant occurrences it elevates the stature of its warmest and most endearing characters. And his crisp dialogue speaks to the kind of hipness that pre-teens most enjoy.
This review was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the September 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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