Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman [2009]

My Rating: 8.5/10

Quick Summary: A modern day take on The Jungle Book, with a supernatural twist.  Bod Owens is taken in as a child and raised by the denizens of an English graveyard.

This is another one that I'd read before, but it was a pure joy to return to it.  I think the second read-through truly brought home just how fabulous Neil Gaiman is at world building. The man's imagination is unrivaled.

I remember when this was announced as the Medal winner for the year, it stirred up a bit of a fuss with people who thought it was too dark for children.  To be fair, I am speaking as a child of the 80s, who grew up watching things like Return to Oz and reading books by Christopher Pike, but I don't believe The Graveyard Book is in any way too dark for kids. Yes, it starts with the murder of the main character's whole family, but it isn't graphic.  And here's the thing- kids love these stories.  They like to be reassured that should the worst happen, should they lose their homes or their families, that they can still survive and thrive. Anyway, after the initial opening sequence, things are actually quite domestic and cozy for a good long while.

I've seen some criticism of the somewhat episodic nature of much of the book, and it times, it does read like a collection of linked short stories, but I think it hangs together quite well.  It's nice to get snapshots of Bod at different ages, rather than shooting straight ahead to the teenage years.  Also, it allows Gaiman to insert important backstory at a nice pace. The reader really gets a chance to know the inhabitants of the graveyard (and fascinating characters they are)... and it highlights the fact that the ghosts are all unchanging, while Bod keeps growing up.

I'll admit, on the re-read, one of the things that sort of bothered me is something that I will probably take some criticism for writing, and that is the status of female characters in The Graveyard Book.  Yes, I am a feminist, and so that lens is one that comes out just about every time I pick up a book (this is probably a cue for me to now receive some hateful flames).  And Gaiman has written some amazing, powerful female characters in the past, and of course, wrote a children's book starring an awesome girl.

I'm very aware of the fact that there is a current concern about boys not reading as much as girls, and not having as many books written for them.  Fifteen of the last twenty Newbery Medal books were by women, frequently featuring female characters.  So the fact that Neil Gaiman wrote a popular book starring a young male character is definitely a good thing.  But still, I was vaguely bothered by the way women were portrayed in the book, which solidified at the end when Scarlett's memory was erased.  I'm sorry, but the trope of the poor girl who just can't take it and so must have her memory erased (Superman II, that Angel episode, etc, I'm looking at you) has always been one that bothers me.

But now I'm going vaguely off track in a direction that is bound to be controversial, so I'll just reign that back in.

I've seen some complaints about the way The Graveyard Book ends, but I thought the finale was really what brought home the parallels to The Jungle Book.  A Bildungsroman requires growth and change, thus Bod's dissolving link to his childhood with the graveyard.  And in the end, growing up is about spreading your wings and finding your place in the world.

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