Monday, August 17, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, 2009 Newbery Medal Winner

In what has become a tradition, each summer my granddaughter attends horse camp in Austin, and during the commute to and from camp each day, we listen to a book on my iPod. Last year we listened to Audie Award winner, Tall Grass, by Sandra Dallas, and it was rich and rewarding. We would discuss the book, the characters and plot, and Sydney would ask me questions about things she didn’t understand. This year, I chose Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, and it too was lovely, and provocative in a fun and intellectually spooky way. But the book I must tell you about today is The Graveyard Book, also by Gaiman.

The Graveyard Book first grabbed my attention because for it, Gaiman received the 2009 Newbery Medal, an annual award given to an author for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. However, what made me curious enough to purchase the book was repeated reviews saying that although this is a children’s book, adults absolutely loved it!

This weekend as my husband and I departed for the wilds of west Texas and our grandson’s birthday party, I perused the list of books on my iPod, wondering what would satisfy my husband’s preference for action, adventure or mystery, and my need for good prose – ingredients not often found coexisting. With some trepidation, and no mention that it was a children’s book, I suggested The Graveyard Book.

First, I want to talk about the author, Neil Gaiman, who is described in various critiques, as a masterful author who happens to write fantasy books. One reviewer said if Gaiman weren’t writing in a genre field, he would be perceived as a renowned contemporary author, and the best author writing today. I’m not sure I’d agree that he is the “best,” as there are so many good writers, but I agree that he is one of the best.

Let me just say that I’m not a fantasy fan. I can appreciate the writing if well done, i.e., the Harry Potter series, but it’s not my thing. However, when the writing is as good as is in The Graveyard Book, and the plot is this fun, it really doesn’t matter that it is fantasy – I’m in.

I guess I should also tell you what the story is about, but it won’t make much sense, especially considering that it is an award winning children’s book. It’s about a little baby whose family is murdered, and he escapes to the nearby graveyard, to be adopted and raised by the inhabitants. Told you it wouldn’t make sense, but Gaiman’s ability to paint scary scenarios without scaring you (or a child, as evidenced by my granddaughter’s reaction to Coraline, which has a similarly morose theme) is unique and one of the more brilliant aspects of his writing.

The Graveyard Book was so charming and suspenseful, that upon arriving home from our trip, with still 40 minutes of the book to hear, we rushed into the house, dumped our bags in the middle of the floor, and immediately retreated to the pool, set up our portable iPod player on a table nearby, and floated and listened to the ending.

One of the things I really like about Gaiman’s writing is that it honors the intelligence of children. Read it to your children or grandchildren and you’ll see what I mean. Kids are smarter than we imagine, but Gaiman writes to their intelligence and it’s very cool. The Graveyard Book is fun, funny, smart, suspenseful, and very different than almost anything you will read.

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