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.

Magic, Space Aliens, Time Travel and Wonder in Middle School Novels

The best middle school novels, like any great fiction, transports readers to a totally new reality. This new reality can take many forms. It might be a world very close to theirs, with characters like people they know, but dealing with a new situation, where they can picture themselves in the story. If you have great, realistic characters with real emotions, the classroom down the hall can be a fascinating place. It may be a historical fiction where the story deals with people not that different than the reader, but in an entirely different time and place. Reading these books is a way to see how life might have been like in ancient Egypt, or during the American civil war, and to see that no matter when and where, people are still people underneath it all. Or, it could be in a fantastical new reality, where magic is real, animals talk to each other and anything is possible. Seeing the fantastical become real is , for me, one of the joys of reading middle grade fiction.

A lot of books, such as the Harry Potter series, are true fantasy’s which  immerse the reader in a magical world. In these novels, everything about their universe is different from normal life, except for the kid’s emotions and personalities, which are real and believable. This is true for so many books, including Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley, the Lightening Thief and the other books in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, and Artimis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, to name just a few. These books are wonders to read and take the reader on a journey where the rules are different and absolutely anything is possible at any time.

There is another type of novel that has some kind of magical or otherworldly element, but the rest of the world is rooted in reality. In this type of story, it is the arrival or introduction of one thing that changes the world of the
characters, but the focus is still on the characters and their problems. One name for this is Magical Realism, and Joy McCullough-Carranza at the Project Mayhem Blog has a great run down of how this differs from outright fantasy. She refers to Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo (I am a fan of Kate’s books, but I haven’t read this one yet) about a squirrel that writes poetry, and When the Butterflies Came by Kimberly Griffiths Little, about a young girl dealing with grief and the magical butterflies that follow her, as good examples of this type of story.

Another category is almost magical realism but based on a sci-fi concept. I don’t know if this category has a real name, but I have heard the term science-fictiony. Unlike hard core science fiction which is more technology based and is often set in a world distant in space or time, these stories take place in a normal, often familiar setting, The characters are real kids, facing their own issues but the sc-fi element upends things, and changes their world.  When You Reach Me, takes a young girl in New York City and focuses on her real life problems with friendship and finding out about the world, with time travel. The novel works great builds suspense and the time travel element feels real and adds urgency, but we never find out how the time travel works, only that it does. Another good example of this type of story is The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm. The book is about how eleven year old Ellie’s scientist grandfather achieves immortality by changing into a thirteen year old boy. The story is funny and and deep, and while it talks about science, it never tries to explain how the Grandfather transformed, it just takes it as a fact that he does. I’d include my book, Summer on Earth, as a science-fictiony book. The story is about how a alien creature comes to earth, takes on human form, and forms a friendship with a young farm boy, but you won’t have to be a fan of science fiction to appreciate the humor as the alien, Will, tries to make sense of human culture, and be touched by his connection to Grady, the boy, and his earth family.

For me finding stories that surprise and delight you is one of the joys of reading middle grade novels. And some of the best are those stories that go beyond everyday reality to give you a better feel for our real world.