Article first published 2018.
I just finished Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book for the fourth time. And for the fourth time, I wept. There’s a reason this book won the Newbery—a reason why such a tale plucks at the heartstrings and beckons us back to the wide-eyed adventures of Mowgli in The Jungle Book.
As a middle grade author who courts adventure and dabbles in horror, I reread TGB every time I set out to write a new novel. I do it out of selfish ambition (Let’s have an honest moment, authors: If you’re not reading writers better than you are, you’re not improving.), yet I always end up with a lithesome pang deep in my chest. Is it jealousy? Perhaps. Gaiman is quite possibly one of the best authors currently living, and I’ll be strung up and slapped silly before I ever write nearly as beautifully. But even more likely, it’s gratitude. Gratitude that Gaiman and Nobody Owens dare me to face the thing that is Death, and in that moment, understand Life even more fully.
It takes a graveyard to raise a child, and it takes a maestro to weave a tale of this magnitude. I’m grasping at straws by even attempting to declaim this book, for every time I close the cover, I find myself enchanted and boggled in a completely new way. However, as I was finishing the last chapter while bawling my eyes out, I did manage to note five subtle lessons that I think every author can (and probably should) glean from The Graveyard Book.
The peculiar thing about Gaiman is he writes about everything you’re not supposed to write, especially in a children’s book. The TGB starts out with a triple-murder and ends with abandonment, all the while dancing through subjects like death, bullying, prejudice, and even suicide. While many guardian-types would gasp and prickle at such questionable material, I pertain that dangerous writing is important and even invaluable in today’s society, particularly in the middle grade genre.
We can close our eyes and hum pretty little tunes as nicely as we want, but the fact of the matter is that all those gristly things I just mentioned are happening, and they are happening in our children’s world just as much as our own. Gaiman employs the adventures of Nobody Owens (“Bod,” if you’re a familiar.) not to shock or scandalize, but to nudge young readers to a deeper understanding.
Take the suicide example. Bod is eight years old when he questions his guardian (a velvet-draped, pale-faced man who “consumed only one food” that is “not bananas”) about those buried in unconsecrated ground:
“‘They killed themselves, you mean?’ said Bod. ‘…Does it work? Are they happier dead?’”
And his guardian replies: “‘Sometimes. Mostly, no. It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.’”
This world of ours is a deep and dark one—a world where innocence is discounted and children are afraid to go to school. Ours is a world that needs stories like these, stories that take the hard, dangerous things and show them for what they really are. That’s what makes TGB a dangerous book and a brave one.
Don’t write down to your readers. Never write down to your readers. Making something long, complicated, or full of tax brackets has never been the same thing as watering down prose, and if you think that your readers are too dull, naïve, or pacified to distinguish craft from rubbish, you’ve vastly underestimated your audience.
Language matters. Young readers deserve good writing.
What I love about TGB is that it never skimps on beauty or quality for the sake of that horrid excuse we’ve dubbed “readability.” The story is strong, and the prose is tight; these two factors allow Gaiman to do what he does best. Certainly, books like Neverwhere and Stardust feature much more mature and adult-centric concepts but reading between Gaiman’s genres is never a disappointment because he never compromises his writing or blanches his talent.
TGB is a prime example. Have you ever read a ghost written quite like this?
“Bod could not see her, but there was an extra shadow between the hawthorn tree, and as he approached it, the shadow resolved itself into something pearlescent and translucent in the early-morning light. Something girl-like. Something gray-eyed.”
Or a vampire?
“At the best of times his face was unreadable. Now his face was a book written in a language long forgotten, in an alphabet unimagined.”
Nothing about these two descriptions is unfathomable. Nothing about them is unachievable. There is a reason that young readers tend to read up, and we as authors had better start taking that responsibility seriously.
From page one (“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”) we know that Bod is facing death. There’s no sugar-coating it, no tiptoeing, and certainly no PG-version. The man Jack is out to kill Bod, and the “why” really doesn’t matter.
Lines are immediately drawn—life and death, good and evil, the breathing and the still—and this reality seeps itself through Gaiman’s story in sobering and sometimes frightening ways.
Take the instance when Bod is facing down the Jacks of All Trades in the Graveyard, outwitting a ravening band of killers with all he has learned from his long-dead family:
“…yet if he moved too slowly a black silk rope would wrap itself around his neck, taking his breath with it and all his tomorrows.”
Or when the man Jack finally has him cornered:
“Bod felt the cold of the knife at his neck. And in that moment, Bod understood. Everything came into focus.”
This is what gives Bod’s story teeth. Every move he makes, everything he does, dances in the wake of dire consequences. Like the looming menace of Shere Khan, the man Jack is ever-present, tinging each of Bod’s escapades with the thrills and chills of a real adventure.
This story has stakes. They’re dangerous. They’re exciting. They’re what bring the magic to life.
Gaiman is not afraid to write a young protagonist in peril, and by doing so, he creates a story that is both tangible and heroic. Even if your hero’s plight is not real to you, it must be real to your character. If you can truly make your protagonist sweat, strive, and fear for his or her life, you will make the reader do the same. And that, my friends, is both masterful and marvelous.
It took Gaiman over twenty years to write TGB. Yes—you heard me correctly. Twenty years. He first had the idea while watching his son ride around headstones on his tricycle. As writers, we are often pressured to live in the tomorrow, harrowed by deadlines, crazed with comparative repertoires, and chided for that thing that “should have been done yesterday.” The market is an endless stream, and we (Of course, I’m preaching to the choir here.) don’t like to hear the stuffy adage of our grandparents: Good things take time.
But it’s the truth. And it also applies to good writing.
Maturing as a writer is not cranking out plasticized prose to achieve a word count. Beautiful prose is hardly ever forced prose. We are all walking different paths with different rifts and ripples, and it is a mark of maturity and introspection to acknowledge what you are and are not ready to write. Perhaps you have a bit more reading to do—more studying, practice, or even just a bit more living. That’s honest writing, which I daresay precludes good writing.
Our gift on this earth is time, and when that gift is spent, none of this will hardly matter, anyway. Take your gift. Treasure it. Give your dreams, your career, and your acumen the space they need to flourish. If it took one of the world’s greatest writers over two decades to incubate a masterpiece, surely, you can give yourself some grace on those deadlines.
In her article for TIME, two-time Newbery Award-winner Kate DiCamillo wrote about why children’s books should be a little sad. She spoke of Charlotte’s Web and how beloved children’s author E. B. White was able to tell the truth (even about death) and make it bearable:
“…in loving the world, he told the truth about it—its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.”
White, DiCamillo, Gaiman—these authors write timelessly because they write truly. It’s the truth that binds us together, the truth that sets us free. When you write truly to your readers, you give them something that matters. Write the good things. Write the bad. Write the pain and the struggle, and then keep writing to remind us that we will all be okay.
Perhaps the most beautiful and heartbreaking moment of TGB is the last chapter, “Leavings and Partings,” where Bod learns that he no longer belongs in the world of the dead and must face the world of the living. Gaiman spares us no pity, and he makes us say goodbye to Bod in the same way his family does:
“Mistress Owens made no immediate reply. She stared up at him, and then she began to sing…
‘Kiss a lover
Dance a measure,
Find your name and buried treasure…
Face your life
Its pain, its pleasure,
Leave no path untaken.’”
In this moment, we feel as Bod feels. The pain. The pleasure. The fear and the uncertainty. We feel the gratitude and the love, the winds of adventure and the pain of growing up. Here, Gaiman writes truly, and he reminds us that this Life of ours is a wonderful thing.
WHAT CAN WE MAKE OF ALL THIS?
“To each his own fear,” says Hathi the Elephant in The Jungle Book. And yes, time and tale have woven this lesson implacably on the human narrative. To fear Death is to be mortal, yet to die is the most natural thing that you and I will ever do. The Graveyard Book demands the questions, the daring and the withal to face the things we try to dampen with monotony. When I’ve wiped my eyes and sucked a breath just to feel my lungs billow, I find that I’m not at all saddened. On the contrary—I’m challenged. Challenged to live, challenged to dare, and challenged to love. I’m challenged to meet the uncertainty like Nobody Owens, a boy who faces this wonderful, wicked world “with his eyes and his heart wide open.”