Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and Breaking the Rules in Middle Grade Novels

If there were an award for the most unusual opening for a middle school novel, my vote would go to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Then again, he doesn’t need an award for that, as he has already won boat loads of awards, including the Newberry for that particular title. Mr. Gaiman can obviously pull it off, but his opening for this novel breaks all the rules for children’s books. The opening scene is from the viewpoint of a killer, as he walks through a house, killing a family. All of the family save one, a toddler who climbs out of his crib and toddles off into the night, unwittingly saving himself. If any other writer submitted an opening like this, they would be roundly rejected, and possibly blacklisted by the publishing house. This opening would be fine in an adult horror or suspense novel, par for the course in young adult, even. But there is a different expectation for middle grade readers. This would be considered too violent and too harsh for the delicate sensibilities of younger readers. Only it wasn’t. Middle school readers loved the book when it came out and it is now considered a modern classic.

This opening is about as dark and disconcerting as you can get, but the good news is that the toddler goes on to find protection and a new family. That doesn’t mean that the story settles down and becomes conventional, though. His new family is a collection of ghosts who live, no, scratch that, who reside in a nearby graveyard. The story tells how the young boy, Bod (short for Nobody) grows up and learns about life from a host of ghosts, ghouls and an undead guardian. It’s easy to see how this could sound like a bad horror story, or a sick joke of some kind. It doesn’t come across that way, though. The emotions feel authentic, and like so many other great middle school books, you feel for Bod as he tries to find out how he will fit in and find his place in the world.

Kids are drawn to darkness and there is a thrill in being scared. Kids love ghost stories told around a campfire, and do their best to scare each other. They pick up on concepts like death pretty early, and it’s almost taboo to talk about, even though we are flooded with images of it in movies and TV, as well as the daily news. Being scared with a book gives them a way to face their fears and see death up close, but know they are going to survive. Scary books that parents hated have always been in demand. Goosebumps was a big hit for a long time, and I remember having a dog eared copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that was passed down from my oldest son to my youngest, and read and reread throughout the years. So there has always been a demand for books that are dark and gritty. What Neil Gaiman was able to do was to take that story and make it magical, too. And that is a real accomplishment.

Where Do Ideas For Middle School Novels Come From?

This is a question that every writer gets- Where do your ideas come from? The truth is, ideas come from everywhere. Ideas can come from your own experiences, random overheard conversations, brainstorming or jottings in a notebook, and of course, like Neil Gaiman, from The Idea of the Month Club (it’s a joke).

Louis Sachar  says that the original idea for writing his classic middle school novel Holes, came from being in the Texas heat after returning from a vacation in Maine. The heat led to the setting which led to the story.

 J.K Rowling first got the idea for Harry Potter while she was delayed on a train. The idea grew from there, and she wrote for years, mostly in long hand, and planned out the whole arc of the series before she wrote the first book.

Katherine Applegate, who wrote The One and Only Ivan, based her story of a Gorrilla living in a mall, on an actual news story. The news story was just something to get her imagination flowing, and the characters and situation, the humor and all the emotions came from her.

The idea for Wonder by R.J Palacio, came when her 3 year old cried at the sight of a little girl with a severe facial deformity. She felt bad about the reaction, and her empathy for what it must be like to be a kid whose appearance is so different from others was the driving force to write the novel.

Rebecca Staid, the author of Newberry winner When You Reach Me, a delightful book about friendship and time travel, says her ideas start with the  character, and the plot developes naturally from there.

Paperboy by Vince Vawter, came from his memories of growing up in Memphis in the late 50s with a stutter. The novel talks about friendship, civil rights and how to understand adults, and the story builds on his personal experiences, and is all the more realistic because of this.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Birkenshaw, is a moving novel about a young girl growing up in Hiroshima Japan during World War II, right before they dropped the bomb. The idea for the novel came from her hearing her grandmother’s stories  about what life was like then.

The idea for my first novel, a thriller, Living Proof, came from listening to an interview about Karla Faye Tucker, a women on death row who had changed her whole life and become a born again Christian while in prison. The novel had nothing to do with that, but it is what first sparked my creativity. The idea for Summer on Earth was a result of an image I remembered when waking up from a dream. In the dream, I was on a porch, looking in through a window at a television set. I started writing about that image, and came out with the concept of an extraterrestrial’s first glimpse of human life coming from a TV.

It is interesting finding out where authors get their inspiration, but ideas are just the start. Ideas are everywhere, it is the execution that makes the magic when the idea turns into a great novel.