The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Cover of "The Graveyard Book"

Cover of The Graveyard Book

This book was odd.  My experience reading it went like this:

Spooky! Interesting idea, okay, yes, yes, weird.  Weird.  Hmm, do I like this?  Who was the 33rd president of the United States? This book is weird and I’m not sure my students will get it.  Ohhhhkay.  Oh! Uh oh! Cool! Awwww. Happy/sad. The end.

I liked it, but I didn’t love it.  Until I read the afterword, which is actually the transcript of the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he accepted the Newberry Award.  And then, it was awesome.

So, the main plot is that in the first few pages of the book, a family is murdered by the man, Jack.  His work is unfinished though, as the toddler of the family manages to walk out the front door and escapes into the graveyard across the street.  The graveyard ghosts rally around to guard him from the killer and when the ghost of the baby’s mother shows up, they know they must keep him safe and protected.  A ghostly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, adopts the boy and names him Nobody, or Bod for short.  Since they are ghosts, they cannot actually provide for him, so the caretaker of the graveyard agrees that he will bring food and clothes, and take care of the boy’s material needs.  Silas is a mysterious figure throughout the book; he can leave the grounds, but seems bound to it in some way.  (Can you guess his secret?)

Bod grows up with his ghostly family and he learns the ways of the graveyard.  He can see in the dark, make himself invisible by Fading, and pass through walls as if he was a ghost as well.  He is taught by poets and philosophers, meets witches, attends a ghostly dance ritual, travels to the underworld, and has an encounter with a real girl named Scarlett.  Unfortunately, the man Jack is still trying to fulfill the task of killing Bod, and he is constantly in danger from this mysterious man.

All in all, this is a book about finding one’s own way and growing up.  Bod must learn to walk among the living and the dead at the same time, and decide which life is preferable to follow.  Like any good hero, he is pushed to his limits at problem solving and cleverness, but he also gets himself into a bit of trouble along the way.

I love Neil Gaiman’s other writings.  I read a lot of British authors.  I hope to be British when I grow up!  My concern as I read this, since it is in my classroom library, was that I was not sure who I would pass this book off to next.  Normally I finish I book and then hand it directly to the next reader.  This one stumped me.  Would my students get the references?  Would they figure out the clues about Silas?  Would it feel stiff and formal to them? I spoke to our school librarian who confessed that she hated the book and didn’t finish it!  She also confessed to not liking Coraline either, so she agreed that perhaps she just didn’t like this author.  A couple of students saw me reading it and also gave it a shot, but I’m not sure if anyone finished it.  I’ll have to ask after vacation.  This book proved to be a bit of a conundrum, and the more I talked people, the more I realized it was a love it/hate it book.  As with any book, I say try it.  If you don’t like it now, try it again later.  You just never know!

At the end of the story is the speech Neil Gaiman gave when he won the Newberry Award in 2009.  In it, he talks about growing up in the library, getting lost in the stories he found there, and how reading allows us to escape and try to experience things outside of ourselves.

I had forgotten what fiction was to me as a boy, forgotten what it was like in the library: fiction was an escape from the intolerable, a doorway into impossibly hospitable worlds where things had rules and could be understood; stories had been a way of learning about life without experiencing it, or perhaps of experiencing it as an eighteenth-century poisoner dealt with poisons, taking them in tiny doses, such that the poisoner could cope with ingesting things that would kill someone who was not inured to them. Sometimes fiction is a way of coping with the poison of the world in a way that lets us survive it. 

And I remembered. I would not be the person I am without the authors who made me what I am–the special ones, the wise ones, sometimes just the ones who got there first. 

It’s not irrelevant, those moments of connection, those places where fiction saves your life. It’s the most important thing there is.

…..We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort.

And then I loved this book.

The Graveyard Book has an AR level of 5.1 and is worth 10 points.

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Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans

Michael VeyOkay, so teaching school really interrupts my free reading time! It’s okay though, because the librarian at my new school is so awesome and it’s great to have someone at work to talk to about all of these cool kid books.  My students LOVE to read this year, too, and they ask for more silent reading time, “please please please!?!” every day.  We have the top AR points for the whole school, with about 4 times as many points banked as the other sixth grade class.  These kids are serious readers!

Today’s book is one that the librarian handed to me last week.  It hasn’t even been checked into the library yet, so I feel pretty privileged to be able to get first peek at it.  It’s called Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25, by Richard Paul Evans.  It was a quick read and I really enjoyed it.  This is a fast-paced middle grade book about a boy with secret electric powers and the evil mastermind who wants to capture and exploit him.  Michael Vey is a seemingly regular high school kid who is just trying to lay low and not get beat up by the school bullies.  One day, a confrontation outs his abilities and he discovers that someone else he knows has similar powers.  Michael, his best friend Ostin, and Taylor (popular, a cheerleader, also electric) launch an investigation that reveals that there were 17 of these “electric children” and now they are being rounded up and held at the Elgen Academy, where Dr. Hatch is trying raise an electric army of kids for his own nefarious purposes.  Life is good at the Academy, IF you are willing to do whatever Dr. Hatch asks of you.  If you don’t comply, there will be punishments!  First Taylor is taken, and then Michael’s mom is kidnapped, which sets Michael on a road trip to California with some unlikely companions.  When they get to the Elgen Academy, it is much more like a prison instead of the school campus they expected.  Getting in is one thing, but getting out seems impossible.  Terrible experiments are happening inside and these electric kids are even using their powers against each other.  The children who refuse to comply are kept in a detention cell, separate from the rest.  Michael, for his refusals to participate, gets locked into a solitary and dark cell for almost a month.  (Cell 25!)  Can they find a way to work together to escape?

I thought this book raised some interesting moral dilemmas that would make for great discussions.  Dr. Hatch is a very tricky antagonist and he plays psychological games with his prisoners.  As one of the children noted, he “manipulates by guilt” starting with small requests until the line between right and wrong becomes blurred and he can hold your morals hostage by offering you everything else you ever wanted.  He calls his electric children “eagles” and compares them to regular folk  being “chickens.”  Eagles eat chickens, not because they are bad, but because it is their nature.  So, what is human nature?  Can you stay strong and continue to make the right choices, even when people you love are in danger?  At what point in this game have you gone too far, and can you come back from those mistakes?

I recommend this book to kids who liked The Hunger Games, the Uglies series, and I Am Number Four books. It was an easy readbut an exciting story.  The characters were a little predictable, but appropriate for the target audience.  This book has an AR level of 3.5 and is worth 11 points.  Although the reading level is low, the characters are in high school.  However, there is no bad language or mature content, so in my opinion, this book would be fine for sixth graders and up.  It would be a great book for a reluctant reader as there is a second book out already and more yet to come!