The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Captain’s Log: Module 4

Port of Call: Gaiman, N. (2008). The Graveyard book. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

First Lines: There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…

 

Cover of The Graveyard Book

Summary: An assassin has murdered a family sleeping in their beds, all except for the baby who likes to crawl out of his crib. Luckily, he has escaped the night of the murder, and toddled up the road to a nearby graveyard. The assassin is hunting for the child, but the citizens of the graveyard decide to protect him and raise him as their own. The boy is named Nobody, Bod for short, and is given the Freedom of the Graveyard, the ability to move as the dead do, and walk through walls, and more, so long as he remains within the graveyard’s walls.

The assassin is still looking for Bod though, and as the boy grows older and wonders more about the world outside the graveyard he finds himself wanting to explore outside his childhood home. Bod makes friends, but faces dangers too, and in the end he must face the killer who murdered his family.

First Impressions: I had not read any of Neil Gaiman’s works before, though I knew quite a bit about him as an author, since I follow his blog. I was not surprised at how well the story flowed, and I think also that this book managed to remain light-hearted and not particularly scary in spite of the grisly intro and the macabre setting.

Suggestions for use: This book is perfect for middle-schoolers and is already quite popular with many children that age. Wonderful reading for Halloween time, or for entertainment at any time. Many teachers talk about reading this book to their class with great success.

Reviews:

“With best-selling books for adults and children — including “Coraline,” a brand-new animated movie — Neil Gaiman has carved out a passionate following in the world of fairy tale and fantasy. Now his latest novel for children, “The Graveyard Book,” has won a top literary honor as well: this year’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature. After the prize was announced last month, a debate ensued among teachers, librarians and critics about whether the selection of a popular author was a departure for the Newbery, one of the most prestigious prizes in children’s books — and, if so, whether it was a welcome one. Gaiman himself seemed surprised by the honor. “There are books that are best sellers and books that are winners,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

But none of this will matter to readers — for “The Graveyard Book,” by turns exciting and witty, sinister and tender, shows Gaiman at the top of his form.

The story opens with a pretty terrifying situation: a man has slaughtered a family in the middle of the night, all save a toddler who escapes unnoticed, walking out the front door and away from the mayhem. (Parents may worry about the violence, but they shouldn’t. The action isn’t described, and the fourth-grade class I read the book to had no problem whatsoever.)

Up the hill trots the toddler, to a graveyard full of ghosts who take him in. The tone shifts elegantly from horror to suspense to domesticity, and by the end of the first chapter Gaiman has established the graveyard as the story’s center. Within its reassuringly locked gates, the boy finds a safe and cozy place to grow up. (Gaiman has said that “The Jungle Book” was one of his influences.)

Among the dead are teachers, workers, wealthy prigs, romantics, pragmatists and even a few children — a village ready to raise a living child. And they do, ably led by Silas, an enigmatic character who is not really one of them, being not quite dead and not quite living. In this moonlit place, the boy — who is given the name Nobody Owens, or Bod for short — has adventures, makes friends (not all of them dead), and begins to learn about his past and consider his future. Along the way, he encounters hideous ghouls, a witch, middle school bullies and an otherworldly fraternal order that holds the secret to his family’s murder. When he is 12 things change, and the novel’s momentum and tension pick up as he learns why he’s been in the graveyard all this time and what he needs to do to leave.

While “The Graveyard Book” will entertain people of all ages, it’s especially a tale for children. Gaiman’s remarkable cemetery is a place that children more than anyone would want to visit. They would certainly want to look for Silas in his chapel, maybe climb down (if they were as brave as Bod) to the oldest burial chamber, or (if they were as reckless) search for the ghoul gate. Children will appreciate Bod’s occasional mistakes and bad manners, and relish his good acts and eventual great ones. The story’s language and humor are sophisticated, but Gaiman respects his readers and trusts them to understand.

I read the last of “The Graveyard Book” to my class on a gloomy day. For close to an hour there were the sounds of only rain and story. In this novel of wonder, Neil Gaiman follows in the footsteps of long-ago storytellers, weaving a tale of unforgettable ­enchantment.”

Edinger, M. (2009) New York Times book review of The Graveyard Book. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/books/review/Edinger-t.html.

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Captain’s Log: Module 4 

Port of Call: McCaughrean, G. (2005). The white darkness. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 

First Lines: I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way. In ninety years I’ll be dead too, and then the age difference won’t matter. 

Cover of The White Darkness

Summary:  Fourteen year old Symmone has been obsessed with Antarctica for a long time, and she knows just about everything there is to know about that continent and the famous explorers who walked and died on its icy surface. One of those explorers lives in her head, Titus Oates, who she confides in. She also has a mother, and a smart-crazy Uncle Victor who knows a lot about everything. Victor takes Sym and her mother on a trip to France that he won, but when Sym’s mother loses her passport she has to stay behind and then Victor asks Sym if she’d like to take a trip to Antarctica instead. Thrilled, she agrees, and so they go to Antarctica where, not too surprisingly, it is revealed that Victor (and some acquaintances who have since appeared) have plans to do more than just look at penguins and see where Captain Scott died. What begins then is a story of adventure, self-discovery and survival across the frozen wild. A journey which tests everything Symmone has within her, her relationship with her Uncle, and with Titus. 

First Impressions: This book sucked me in almost immediately. I loved Sym’s ‘imaginary friend’ Titus who really is more of an imaginary boyfriend. I loved her passion for the antarctic and that she was so painfully shy around others. And once the story really got going, I could not put it down. This is a powerful book and it kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. 

Suggestions for use: Recommend this book to teenagers looking for an adventure, to shy students, to girls, and to anyone who is interested in Antarctica. 

Reviews:

“Fourteen-year-old Symone is obsessed with Antarctic exploration. Ever since the death of her father, she has read every book and watched every movie she can find about Antarctica. She is particularly enamored with Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates, one of the explorers lost in the doomed Scott expedition. Titus is her companion and confidante, an imaginary friend who fills in for her grieving family and distant friends.

Outside of Titus, the only person to take an interest in Sym’s life is her Uncle Victor, a family friend who has cared for the family since her father’s death. Uncle Victor feeds Sym’s interest in Antarctica and arranges for a trip to the frozen continent. There, Sym must face the White Darkness, a phenomena of the polar summer where the sun never truly sets and the only indication of night is white, unmarred by shadow.

Sym identifies with the purity, isolation and silence of the white continent. She sees herself as particularly suited to a place that others see as dead:

“God sketched Antarctica, then erased most of it again, in the hope a better idea would strike Him.” Sym observes, “At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn’t finished. It’s the address for Nowhere…it mesmerized me. The idea of it took me in thrall. It was so empty, so blank, so clean, so dead. Surely, if I was ever to set foot down there, even I might finally exist. Surely, in this Continent of Nothingness, anything — anyone — had to be hugely alive by comparison!”

Sym does not know that she is a pawn in a larger conspiracy, subject to the fanatical beliefs of one man. Uncle Victor is obsessed with his own theories about discovery and becomes unhinged. He is less concerned with their ability to survive than in securing his place in history. Nasty secrets start to emerge as they travel across the ice. Sym must choose between trusting her uncle and listening to the inner voice she has always regarded as imaginary.

THE WHITE DARKINESS is told entirely from Sym’s point of view, offering her wry observations of the other travelers and sharing her expertise on the subject of the Arctic. Author Geraldine McCaughrean’s biggest challenge is convincing the reader that a smart girl like Sym would be taken in by the suspicious circumstances of her trip with Uncle Victor. McCaughrean succeeds by invoking other polar explorers, many of whom might be regarded as madmen, making discovery at the expense of their own lives.

The juxtaposition of Sym’s adventure next to the Scott expedition — which McCaughrean wisely summarizes in an appendix at the end of the book — asks if death is too high a price to pay for discovery. The irony of the Scott expedition was that, as they chose to push on to discover the South Pole knowing they were unlikely to return, another explorer, Roald Almundsen, already had beaten them to the Pole by two weeks and lived to tell the tale. Had the Scott expedition survived, they would not have been the first to reach the Pole. They found more notoriety through death than they would have in life.

The Arctic regions are ideal for asking the big questions about ethics and morality because one’s decisions, which might be regarded as opinions in ordinary life, hinge on life or death in such a harsh environment. Many 19th century writers were fascinated with the Arctic as a place representing the unexplored regions of the human psyche. In FRANKENSTEIN Mary Shelley sets the final showdown between creator and monster on the polar ice. Henry David Thoreau wrote about the Arctic explorers of his time in WALDEN saying, “…explore your own higher latitudes…there are continents and seas in the moral world, to which every man is an isthmus or inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold, storm and cannibals…than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific of one’s being alone.”

THE WHITE DARKNESS manages to ask some of these big questions without compromising plot or pace. It is a book filled with action, mystery and the slightest touch of the supernatural. Its strange story will be appreciated by readers interested in survival tales and the shadow side of human nature.”

Wood, S. (2005) Teenreads.com review of The White Darkness. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/0060890355.asp.