Saturday, June 27, 2009

PROPAGANDA Reviews: Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman.

Illustrated by Chris Riddell (younger readers version) and Dave McKean (adult version and slipcased edition)

The Graveyard Book’s been out for quite a while now, having received many plaudits and accolades along the way and most recently winning the prestigious Newberry Medal, given by the Association for Library Service to Children to recognise the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. I held off reading it for a little while as I’d decided that it was something I wanted to read with 9 year old Molly after we read Coraline (reviewed here).

We find Neil Gaiman’s children’s books, every single one of them, to be wonderful, imaginative and magical things. We’ve read them all in our house and the act of reading them out loud has convinced me that Gaiman works best this way. His adult prose may lack something for me (one of these days I will convert you to them! - Joe), but his storytelling, his works as performance are great things. And so it is with the Graveyard Book. Night after night Molly and I read this one, with Molly deciding that she wanted the room as dark as possible so she could close her eyes to better imagine the creatures filling the pages of the book.

Now, considering that The Graveyard Book begins a particularly nasty serial killer brutally killing every member of a family except the baby, this could potentially have led to many, many nights of terrible nightmares. Luckily, Molly’s made of stern stuff and realises, just like many children do, that sometimes the stories need a little death to make a life more interesting.

(“They say a witch is buried here” Art from chapter 4 The Witch’s Headstone by Chris Riddell.)

The Graveyard Book starts, as I’ve already mentioned, with a grisly set of murders. The murderer; The Man Jack, is a genuinely chilling and scary villain and mother, father and daughter lie dead by Jack’s hand. Miraculously the baby of the family escapes and finds unexpected refuge in the local graveyard where he’s given a new name; Nobody Owens, and gains a new extended family of ghosts, ghouls, spectres and spooks all doing their best to hide him from The Man Jack who carries on his hunt for the one that got away.

And if all this sounds rather familiar, a young boy rescued by a strange group of creatures and raised as one of their own, all the while under threat from a powerful monster, it’s no surprise. It’s the Jungle Book with dead folks and Gaiman acknowledges his huge debt to Kipling’s story in the back of the book.

So Bod finds a new home in the graveyard, looked after by his ghostly adoptive mother and father, tutored by ghosts, mentored by his vampiric guardian and given the freedom of the graveyard. It may be no ordinary life that Bod has, but it’s certainly not boring. But there’s only so much that the dead can teach about life and Bod finds himself drawn, time and again, into the land of the living where danger and adventure waits in equal parts.

The book is almost structured as a series of short stories, as Bod ventures through the graveyard’s various mysteries, finds a ghostly witch girl her headstone, takes part in the Danse Macabre where the dead venture from the graveyard and dance amongst the living, and becomes the imaginary friend to a young girl (told by her parents that the boy she plays with is her imaginary friend and why should she disbelieve them?). At one point I began to wonder where Gaiman was taking us with the story, as each chapter / short story seemed to be only moving the story along by accident rather than design. But I need not have worried, as he skilfully and magnificently draws all of his many threads together as The Man Jack comes crashing back into Bod’s life to finish the job he started nearly 16 years previous.

(“The four men stood at the door to number 33″. Chris Riddell’s wonderfully detailed art is the perfect match for Neil Gaiman’s decidedly scary story of The Graveyard Book.)

It might be a prose story, but I have to mention the artwork of the book. Gaiman’s frequent collaborator, the great Dave McKean provides some magnificent art for the adult version of the book. But I picked up the children’s version for Molly, with illustrations by Chris Riddell. And it surprised me, because when I did see McKean’s visuals I realised that, not only did I prefer Riddell’s version, I actually thought the pictures were far scarier than McKean’s. Take that image above, from Chapter 7 where the mysterious men representing the Convocation appear, as threatening and disturbing as anything Gaiman can think of.

Not that McKean’s images aren’t as impressive as usual, far from it. His images of Bod and the graveyard are lovely, haunting things. I just find Riddell’s to be far more disturbing and suitable for the book.

(Bod in the graveyard. Art By Dave McKean from the adult version of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.)

The Graveyard Book is typical Gaiman; packed with imagination and invention, delightfully scary with at least a couple of truly disturbing moments that are almost guaranteed to have younger children cowering with thrilling fear beneath the covers. Yet for a book set so firmly amongst the dead, The Graveyard Book’s real message is that life, no matter who, what or where you are, is always worth living and a really good life has to be experienced rather than observed.

It’s a book to be treasured for a long time, a natural successor to the great Coraline and, whether it’s enjoyed from under the covers late at night with Dad providing all the scary voices, or a little later on to be read alone with the scares all playing out in their head, it’s something children and grown ups will absolutely love.

The Graveyard Book is available in three flavours: The Children’s Version, illustrated by Chris Riddell; The Adult Version, illustrated by Dave McKean and the slipcased edition illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s also available from the Mouse Circus website (Gaiman’s site for younger fans) as a series of videos, each from one of Gaiman’s Graveyard Book tour readings from October 2008, where Gaiman reads the entire book over nine stops.

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