Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pondering The Graveyard Book and Being Raised by Wolves

Several days ago I finished reading:

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Newbery Medal, 2009

(the British cover, which I prefer. British covers are so often better.)

This book won the prestigious Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature. If you follow my blog, you know I am plugging away at reading all of these award winning books (a vast amount awarded since 1921).

Not only did this book win the 2009 Newbery Medal, but also spent weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list for Young Adults. It has been hotly discussed as it seems to be a departure for the Newbery Award. The consensus and reviews are abundant however, and the majority of people LOVE this book. It is raved about, it as adored, it is on "Top 100 Children's Novels" lists. I am not in this large group of readers who love this book.

In fact, I've been so bothered by this book, that I've had to mull on it before I could begin to write about it. Let's begin at the beginning (some spoilers included):

"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.

The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.

The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done. "

There you go, first paragraphs of the story -- terrifying and menacing. It wouldn't be uncommon to read an adult horror novel of someone breaking in, stabbing everyone in the house - including the children and babies -- leaving the handle of the razor sharp knife dripping wet with blood, but remember this is a book written for children.

The toddler escapes and makes his way to a graveyard where he is taken in and harbored by the resident ghosts of the graveyard. His new parents are ghosts, and his guardian, Silas, is described as not quite dead, and not quite living (a vampire). His eventual tutor is a werewolf, but the entire graveyard (a village) helps to raise the boy.

The book follows his adventures. He makes friends, has a scary encounter with ghouls, finds a hidden spirit in a burial mound, befriends a witch, goes to human school and deals with middle school bullies, and eventually deals with those (a fraternal order) that slaughtered his family and still wish to murder him.

The NY Times Sunday Book Review says, "Parents may worry about the violence, but they shouldn’t. The action isn’t described, and the fourth-grade class I read the book to had no problem whatsoever."

Again, I disagree. There seems to be quite a bit of the violence described. A tremendous amount in fact. I would have taken objection to my child being read this book in fourth-grade classroom.

Neil Gaiman has talked at length about his love of Kipling's The Jungle Book. He says that this book is directly influenced by Kipling, and this book is his retelling of The Jungle Book's tales. The chapters read as loosely linked stories, following the coming of age of this orphaned boy, similar to the way Kipling constructed his story.

If I had to point out something I liked, it would be the inclusion of mythological characters, and interesting historical notations of Romans. I particularly enjoyed where he found a hidden barrow guarded by an Indigo Man (an ancient Pict) where some Druid treasures are buried. These elements of spookiness I liked.

The ending finds Bod (the boy) grown up and having to live outside of the Graveyard. He no longer can pass and travel throughout it as he had while growing up.  The "village" had done their part, and find him ready to enter into the world of "man". The ending has some sweet moments similar to The Jungle Book.

Upon completion of the book, I felt an overwhelming sadness and a bit of ache in my stomach. I truly am not one that is overly zealous in the censoring of books. I am not concerned with  books that are spooky or mysterious. I don't take objection to vampires and witches (except that the genre has been flooded with poorly written drivel). I would also express my enjoyment of books with dystopian themes such as The Hunger Game series. This might be a book that an older teen might enjoy. But where is the age appropriateness? When I consider the Newbery, I think of children. I think middle elementary through middle school years.

Surely I would have a hard time luring a teen into reading some other Newbery winners such as
Sarah, Plan and Tall (1986)  or Dear Mr. Henshaw (1984)

I cannot fathom wanting to introduce my child to a story where someone terrorizes a family at night, slaughters them, and tries and fails to kill a baby in a crib.

When I read The Tale of Despereaux (Newbery Medal, 2004)
to my child (he was in fourth-grade, the same age as the children read the book in the review) he wiped tears away while we read the part where Despereaux is banished by his family to the dungeon of rats for breaking the mouse rules. I can't even begin to think how he would handle the knowledge of far greater travesties taking place in the world.

Children are little sponges. They absorb and retain. My desire and hope is that we would fill those children with things of delight and joy, fantasy, nature, adventure and beauty. There is such a vast trove out there for children to read. Save the advanced themes for when they are older. It will never hurt them to wait.

Here is more of the NY Times review. I am quite in the minority of people who disliked this book and really question the age appropriateness of the subject matter.

While “The Graveyard Book” will entertain people of all ages, it’s especially a tale for children. Gaiman’s remarkable cemetery is a place that children more than anyone would want to visit. They would certainly want to look for Silas in his chapel, maybe climb down (if they were as brave as Bod) to the oldest burial chamber, or (if they were as reckless) search for the ghoul gate. Children will appreciate Bod’s occasional mistakes and bad manners, and relish his good acts and eventual great ones. The story’s language and humor are sophisticated, but Gaiman respects his readers and trusts them to understand.

 An Alternate cover for the book:


  1. Thank goodness you are willing to do the tough job that most parents ( and horrifically, the Newberry Awards) have abandoned.In our PC world of today, children no longer have a protected childhood. We might trample someone's rights by doing so. Whatever happened to good common sense? ( Dare I say Christian common sense ? Or will I be labeled as some "right wing nut job")

  2. Since everyone who knows me well, knows clearly that I am a lover of children. Their precious eternal souls are my main focus. Children respond with excitement to purposeful adventures; they grow in wisdom as they read of noble, selfless heroes; they respond in tender goodness when they read accounts of courage, bravery, loyalty, self-sacrificial love. These stories inspire them to the Great Good.
    Whoever writes stories of cruelty, violence, and horror for children must not have respect for the tender souls of children.
    It is a basic truth that reigns supreme when studying Childrens Literature, that "children become the hero of the book."
    Whoever loves and respects children will tap that deep recess of their imagination with tales of GOODNESS, such as Despereaux, Digory, High King Peter, Frodo, St. George and the Dragon and thousands of others.
    Neil Postman warned adults of the dangers in our modern culture - of irrepairibly wounding the fragile sense of goodness, virtue and truth within children. This is robbery of the strongest degree.
    Some will ask, "Why then was this book so popular?" That question reveals a complete ignorance of human nature. Why is evil often enticing? Why does shock value work so well?
    Some doors should not be opened.
    Evil is real. We need to recognize that and guard our children.