The Graveyard Book: Raised by ghosts in a London graveyard

fantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman The Graveyard Bookchildren's fantasy book review Neil Gaiman The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s 2008 novel The Graveyard Book really racked up the awards, winning the British Carnegie Medal and American Newbery Medal for the best children’s book of the year, and then more surprisingly, the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Novel and Locus Award for Best YA Book. For years I have heard Gaiman’s name for various books like Stardust (which was a great film), Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and American Gods (2002 winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, BSFA, World Fantasy, British Fantasy awards), not to mention the legendary Sandman series of graphic novels. So I figured I really needed to get with the times and read his work.

The story itself is incredibly simple. It begins with a sinister man named Jack who enters a London home at night and proceeds to quietly and ruthlessly kill every member of the family there, except for a toddler who miraculously manages to escape on his own and wander into the old graveyard on the hill. Though Jack gives pursuit, the ghosts of the graveyard choose, after a hurried debate, to provide aid to the young live boy and successfully hide him from the sinister Jack. At this point, the action of the story has essentially come to an end until the final 50 pages of the book. I’m certainly not someone who wants or demands wall-to-wall action scenes in a book (or movie), and when I say “action” I mean events that drive the narrative forward.

However, the middle portion of The Graveyard Book is a coming-of-age tale of Nobody “Bod” Owens, who is raised by the dead folk of the graveyard and protected by Silas, a mysterious figure who is neither dead nor alive, but is certainly not to be trifled with. Gaiman introduces Bod to a myriad of deceased folk from many different eras of England, many of whom feel protective of Bod as he grows up among them. However, because the killer Jack is still seeking to track down the missing boy, Bod is under strict instructions not to venture outside the graveyard. He develops skills such as Fading, instilling Fear, seeing in the dark, and being able to slip through places that the living normally cannot.

Of course there is the inevitable struggle of Bod to reconcile his solitary life among the dead with the urge to explore and be part of the larger world of the living that exists outside the graveyard’s gates. But his one brief foray outside almost results in being captured by Jack, so he quickly retreats back to the safety of his graveyard home. Later he encounters several supernatural creatures in the graveyard that will eventually help him in his struggle to survive an attack by the man Jack and his associates, and the ending is suitably exciting and satisfying.

By the end of the story we discover that it is as much about parenting and raising a child, no matter what the circumstances, as it is a story of growing up. As a parent of a young teen, I certainly could empathize with the feelings of the graveyard denizens as they watched Bod grow up from an innocent child to a strangely calm and sheltered boy. It was an interesting spin on parenting, and the individual deceased have interesting life stories, often quite short, and it really makes their day to have an audience for their tales.

What The Graveyard Book lacked for me is any sense of excitement or momentum. Despite the lingering threat of death if Bod strays into the outside world, he mainly is safe in the graveyard confines, and his only other experience, when we decides to enter a normal school to be closer to other children, isn’t particularly noteworthy. So while I didn’t mind reading the book, I also didn’t feel an urgency to see what would happen next, and was often more interested in the other books I was reading.

I imagine this book is very entertaining for kids and young adults, not to mention adults who like YA stories, but I don’t really connect well with YA fiction. I’m often at a loss as to what exactly the distinction is, other than having less convoluted plots, more focus on younger protagonists, and less sex and violence. For example, I was thoroughly unimpressed with the first HARRY POTTER book and to this day have no idea what the fuss is about for that series. So while I didn’t really get excited about The Graveyard Book, that may be simply a matter of my reading preferences. Having said that, I’m still planning to read Stardust, since I loved the movie.

The Graveyard Book — (2008) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Bod is an unusual boy who inhabits an unusual place — he’s the only living resident of a graveyard. Raised from infancy by the ghosts, werewolves, and other cemetery denizens, Bod has learned the antiquated customs of his guardians’ time as well as their timely ghostly teachings — like the ability to Fade. Can a boy raised by ghosts face the wonders and terrors of the worlds of both the living and the dead? And then there are things like ghouls that aren’t really one thing or the other. This chilling tale is Neil Gaiman’s first full-length novel for middle-grade readers since the internationally bestselling and universally acclaimed Coraline. Like Coraline, this book is sure to enchant and surprise young readers as well as Neil Gaiman’s legion of adult fans.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to fill in all the gaps in his reading of classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners, as well as David Pringle's 100 Best SF and Fantasy Novels, before moving back to reading newer books. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, J.G. Ballard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

View all posts by Stuart Starosta


  1. Umm… did you like The Jungle Book when you were a kid?

  2. Never read Kipling’s Jungle Book or saw the Disney movie. Problem was I was raised by wolves so I missed out on a lot of essential reading as a child :-)

  3. What? I thought wolves were big library users! :)

    Seriously, though, even with books like Stardust, and for part of the time, Anansi Boys, I have had the same experience of a lack of… I won’t say a lack of tension. Sometimes Neil Gaiman’s narrative voice so smooth and so friendly that it just gives me the impression that nothing really bad can happen… even while really bad things are happening. Strangely, I never had that feeling while I was reading American Gods.

    I bet the site would like a review of The Jungle Book.

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