It's no bold claim to say that Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is something special. After all, he's won the Newbury for it. Everything he does is fascinating, and one of my favorite new authors, Joe Hill, calls it "everything everyone loves about Neil Gaiman, only multiplied many times over."
And, yet, it's not easy to describe what makes this book work. It's a softspoken series of tales involving a little boy, driven from his home as an infant because dark forces wanted him dead (see Harry Potter), and who finds his refuge in a world most people fear--in this case the world of the dead versus a world of witchcraft.
But this book is nothing like Harry Potter, and it's nothing like anything I've ever read before. It reminds me a little of Clive Barker's The Thief of Always only because it is so elegant in the way it plucks just the right notes to evoke childhood, with a great appreciation of a child's view of the world but without nostalgia. In truth, though, the otherworldly wonderland Barker creates has more in common with the world of the Other Mother in Coraline. This book's up to something different.
Although it starts with a shocking series of murders, and the threat of that same danger lies over the entire book, The Graveyard Book isn't exactly horror. Gaiman and Stephen Colbert joked last night that, in this book, ghosts are nice people and living people are the ones that are scary. That's part of it. This is a book about the beauty of a child's fantasy world, and even the beauty of the world that's gone before us, the rich personalities and humor and compassion and stories of those we walk past in a garden of gravestones. The great folksinger Utah Phillips once said that history wasn't in the past. Picking up a rock, he declared something like "This is history, right under our feet." The Graveyard Book is about the wonder of a child's connection to that kind of sense of history, and it argues that those lives that led up to ours matter, even if they aren't lives as they once were.
Because, in the end, that's why the young protagonist, Nobody Owens, has to leave the graveyard. Lives are stored there, but life isn't lived there. He has relationships with the dead, including a poignant, yet subtle relationship with a teenager drowned as a witch. But they are static beings, and he is dynamic. They can prepare him for life, with their stories and lessons (including many that are humorously outdated, but then who didn't get some of those at home?). But he has to take the risk of leaving the cemetary in order to live it.
There's much, much more to this book--including a descent into hell in the arms of goblins, both a loving werewolf and vampire who shepherd the boy through his childhood, and even a romance with a living girl (no, not all living people in the book are scary--well, at least she's no more scary than the average girl). Figuratively, there's even a near Home Alone-style dragon-slaying of the Big Bad and his minions.
But, somehow, the story never seems to overstep a delicately wrought world we all half remember from, if not our own childhoods, our childhood imaginations and our youthful visions of possibility. That's what makes the book so exquisite, the way it captures those half-forgotten worlds, while--and this is the important part--insisting that the real world is out here, in this big old scary world of the living.
The book ends contemplating death, which I would argue any great book--for children or adults--ought to do, but it focuses on what comes before:
...between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.
Which is exactly what the book prepares the reader to do, and therein lies its greatness.