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.

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