“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”—G. K. Chesterton
(This book may interest students beyond ninth grade as well, however, I think the writing lends itself to this age.)
Review and Thoughts
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman starts out with quite the attention-grabber! As the story begins, we witness the murder of a family. The murderer, Jack, quietly goes through a house and stabs everyone. Luckily, before he can murder the young two-year-old, the baby climbs out of his crib and crawls down a nearby hill to an old graveyard. Here, he is protected by ghosts and other creatures who live there. The mother of the young boy and the rest of his family appear as ghosts, though only briefly. The mother cries out begging the ghosts to take care of her son. As they agree, the young family fades into the darkness until they appear in their own graveyard to rest in eternal peace.
I have to admit, the beginning of this story was hard for me to read. As a young mother and a rather empathetic person, I was very stressed reading the initial murder in the story. It makes me think of my own beautiful children as they sleep in their beds and what terror the mother must have felt as she saw the man after her young son. Though I understand this is integral to the exposition of the story, I struggled with it quite a bit. However, I feel many young people may not have quite the anxiety that I did.
The story continues piece by piece as the little baby grows into a young man. The baby is named Nobody (Bod for short). He is raised by a kind ghost couple who could never have children of their own and he is mentored by Silas, a vampire. Bod is granted the freedom of the graveyard which means he can move about as the ghosts do, and he can see what the ghosts see. Each chapter tells of some great adventures he experiences.
As a very young boy, Bod meets a living girl named Scarlett. Her mother brings her to the park reserve, which also happens to be the graveyard. While her mother reads, Scarlett is free to run around. Bod and Scarlett become friends. Scarlett comes often and one day they go on an adventure through an old tomb and into the center of a hill and come in contact with the Sleer. The Sleer is a snakelike creature who is guarding the tomb at the bottom. Once Bod and Scarlett realize the Sleer can do nothing to harm them, they are no longer scared. Unfortunately, they are gone for so long that Scarlett’s mother is scared and calls the police. They finally find her and she is no longer allowed to return to the graveyard. Her family quickly moves away. Bod is upset since he has lost his one living friend.
Another adventure involves a trip to hell. Bod’s mentor, Silas, leaves and Miss Lupescu, his replacement, comes to stay with him for awhile. Bod can’t stand her because he feels she teaches him nothing important. One night, Bod comes in contact with three ghouls and they take him through a ghoul-gate to hell. They plan to eat him unless he wants to become a ghoul as well. Bod is able to call for help since Miss Lupescu has taught him how to speak several different languages. She comes to save him and he finds out she is a werewolf, or a Hound of Heaven. She is a “good guy” and can go into hell to fight for good. Bod is saved because of her and is returned safely to the graveyard.
As Bod gets older he meets a witch named Liza Hempstock. He thinks she is nice and feels bad for her because she was buried outside of the graveyard walls in unconsecrated ground. She doesn’t have a headstone and he wants to do something nice for her by getting her one. He goes back down to the tomb guarded by the Sleer to obtain the treasures he guards. Bod takes them to a pawnbroker who realizes their value and is planning to keep him captive until he finds out where he got the treasure. Liza appears in enough time to teach him how to fade which allows him to escape.
On another magical night as Bod gets older he witnesses the Danse Macabre. An old tradition that allows the living to dance with the dead for one night. He is very upset that no one remembers it when it is done.
All of Bod’s adventures lend themselves to the second part of the book when he finds out about the murders of his family. It is here that he decides to take revenge. Though it is a slow start for him, he begins the best way he knows how. He signs up for school so that he can learn what all of the kids are learning. Funny enough, no one seems to notice that he is even there. Unfortunately, he has a run-in with two bullies, and that makes things difficult for him to remain in school.
Scarlett eventually returns to Bod and together they try to unravel the mystery of his family’s death. Scarlett has befriended a man named Mr. Frost who does grave rubbings in the graveyard, and he agrees to help her solve the mystery. He is a nice man who becomes close to her and her mother.
As it turns out, Mr. Frost is living in Bod’s old house and has found some important evidence that will tell all about the murders. Scarlett invites Bod to go with her. Mr. Frost brings Bod upstairs to show him what he has found and then turns on Bod. He is the man Jack! Luckily, Bod is able to fade and narrowly escapes by locking Jack Frost in the attic. He leaves with Scarlett just as the many other Jacks of all trades appear on the scene to help “finish” Bod.
Bod is able to use his knowledge of the graveyard and the information he’s learned from his different adventures to defeat all of the Jacks. One is destroyed by the Sleer, two end up in hell, one falls in an open grave…and the list goes on.
The story ends with Bod growing too old to stay in the graveyard any longer. His freedom to roam is disappearing. He must say good-bye to his family and to Silas and he must live his own life. Since the Jacks of all trades are dead and gone, he has nothing left to fear, and so bravely leaves to live his own life of adventure out of the graveyard.
The story is a great adventure book for young adults and I believe that many will enjoy it. Neil Gaiman is a wonderful writer with a beautiful gift for storytelling and a vocabulary that will help challenge students. There are plenty of issues (the murder at the beginning), so I would recommend this for more mature readers.
This book has also received a number of awards:
Newberry Award in 2009
Hugo Award for Best Novel 2009
Carnegie Medal in 2010
- Bod’s family is murdered in the first scene.
- The Sleer might be considered scary for some readers.
- Bod’s trip to hell can be frightening for some readers.
- There are characters who are ghosts, ghouls, witches, vampires, and werewolves. This may be of concern for some parents.
- There is a lot of fighting in the end as Bod tries to defeat the Jacks of all trades.
- There are many ghosts in the story. This is a good opportunity to talk to kids about what the church believes about ghosts.
- Frost comes across as a nice man when he first meets Scarlett. Discuss the dangers of befriending an adult who is unfamiliar, and review the familiar rule that accepting a ride from anyone who unfamiliar is very dangerous. Also, it is important to remind them that social media allows them to come in contact with more people they don’t know. All people must guard themselves and avoid providing too much information to people they don’t know.
- The Danse Macabre is a real piece of music written by Camille Saint-Saens. You can listen to it below.
- Dante Alegheiri wrote of his trip through hell. He describes many people who were down there from his current society. Gaiman has mentioned a few people he finds in hell as well. He mentions a president of the US (Harry S Truman), Victory Hugo, and the emperor of China. Read about who Dante has condemned. Why do you think he put those people there?
- Many famous pieces of literature have characters go through hell, or the underworld, and come back again. Compare and contrast the hell from Homer’s Odyssey and the hell in The Graveyard Book. Then read about the visions of hell that Our Lady of Fatima showed the visionaries.
- Read the poem “The Hound of Heaven”. Who is “The Hound of Heaven”? Compare and contrast the “Hound of Heaven” with the “Hounds of God”.
General Teaching Resources
- A Novel-Ties Study Guide for The Graveyard Book
- Resources from TeachingBooks.net
- Resources from Book Rags
- Teaching Guide from Harper Collins
- This video from mousecircus.com has Neil Gaiman read the entire book. (Having a child listen to a book being read while following along can help with comprehension, especially struggling readers or who might have trouble with attention.)