“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond”– C.S. Lewis
Neil Gaiman has cemented himself as a great voice in children’s lit through iconic characters such as Coraline. I recently decided to pick up one of his most famous children’s books called The Graveyard Book. I was first drawn to read this book as an adult because I learned that it was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman crafts a story about a young boy named Nobody Owens (Bod for short). As a baby, Bod’s entire family is murdered, and he ends up living in a cemetery where he is raised by ghosts. The Graveyard Book is a wonderful example of intertextuality because Gaiman is drawing inspiration from a classic, The Jungle Book. Gaiman’s story is creative, magical, and adventurous making it a great read for a child. As an adult, I was able to connect to that child’s sense of wonder whilst also making the connections to Kipling’s book which I wouldn’t have fully grasped as a child. Overall, it was a thrilling and very satisfying reading experience! Note: there are some minor plot spoilers in the recap section of this review.
At the heart of both of these narratives, there is a child that is growing up outside of the realm of the human world. Mowgli grows up in a jungle, while Bod grows up in a graveyard. Both Mowgli and Bod are forced to adapt to their environment and learn from their unusual teachers and role models. Mowgli, as a young boy, is taught the principles and survival skills from the wolf pack. He learns through their way of life. Bod also learns both practical and moral lessons from ghosts. He also faces ghouls and a Sleer just as Mowgli has an encounter with a snake. Mowgli’s experiences in the jungle better prepare him to ultimately face the fierce tiger, Shere Khan. All of Bod’s experiences as a child ultimately culminate to the climactic encounter with his families’ murderer, Jack Frost. The tools and lessons that Mowgli and Bod learn as young boys better equip them to face the greater enemies and obstacles that they must face as adults.
Gaiman nicely crafts secondary characters based on their animal archetypes from The Jungle Book. Mowgli’s parental figures are two wolves from the pack where he was raised. In The Graveyard Book, Bod is raised by a married ghost couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who were never able to have children of their own when they were alive. There are limitations for these parents because in both cases they are not humans like their child. In the case of the wolf parents, they cannot feed Mowgli or create a fire because that is something only man can do. Mr. and Mrs. Owens similarly do not have the ability to feed him since they cannot leave the cemetery, and they can’t physically grab things for him. Still, the mother and father figures are present in both narratives, and the couples provide a nurturing foundation for the main characters to grow up.
Along with the parental figures, both Mowgli and Bod have another guardian persona that provides structure and discipline for the young boys. Mowgli’s guardian is Bagheera. He not only looks over Mowgli but is also described as an overseer of the whole jungle. The panther’s persona can best be encapsulated in this excerpt: “Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody dared to cross his path; for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than dawn” (Kipling). I noticed the strongest parallels of archetypes between Bagheera and Gaiman’s character, Silas. Just as Bagheera is a guardian to Mowgli so is Silas to Nobody Owens. Both mentor figures live somewhere between worlds; Bagheera reveals that he was locked up in captivity, and he later escaped. He has some understanding of the human world even though he is a wild animal. Silas, on the other hand, is not alive, but he is not dead either. As a protector of the graveyard, he naturally assumes the role of Bod’s guardian.
Gaiman highlighted the role that Silas was filling by attributing him with the animal-like characteristics from which he was mirroring. Interspersed in the descriptions, Gaiman creates metaphors and similes for Silas that give him features and mannerisms synonymous with a panther. I thought it was so cleverly done. In one excerpt from the book, Gaiman writes “[Bod’s] guardian looked almost heartbroken then, and Bod found himself scared, like a child who has woken a sleeping panther” (Gaiman 164). Gaiman utilizes this technique for many of his characters; the murderer, Jack, is described as a predator and a tiger, drawing the parallel to Shere Khan. Another character called a Sleer is described with snake-like features. The scenes with the Sleer engage with words and sounds that are inspired by the movements and noises that snakes make. Even Liza Hempstock is described as a peacock. This is a minor detail that I thought really enriched my reading experience. I really enjoyed these moments because it reminded me of the tradition from which Gaiman was taking his inspiration from.
I think it is extremely important for adults to continue to read and be aware of the literature that children read. To this day, I think some of the most valuable storytelling is done for child audiences. Charlotte’s Web, The Velveteen Rabbit, Mary Poppins, Pippi Longstocking, Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time… These are universally beloved stories, and they are all books made for children. Whether or not you enjoy reading as an adult, most of us can still remember our favorite books/series from our childhood. The value of children’s literature is its power to instill a sense of wonder and curiosity whilst also tapping in to universal human emotions and experiences. Truly great children’s lit also draws on a larger literary tradition teaching children about classic story arcs (such as the hero’s journey) and making connections to other important literary texts. I would definitely classify The Graveyard Book as a must read for a young child. If you have children of your own, I would highly recommend introducing this book into their repertoire, as well as adding it to your own reading list!