In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

It takes a graveyard

Dear Annie,

We seem to be on a grave kick here in the nation's capital.  My last post was on the wonderful true story of the plot to steal Abe Lincoln's body.  And today, guest blogger Lizzie (your cousin, my daughter) returns with the decidedly fictional world of a graveyard.

I’ve spent a lot of my life listening to books. My parents read to me at night until I got into high school and would sometimes head to bed after they were already asleep. We listened to books on tape as a family on long car rides. We all read the Harry Potter books aloud as they came out (though those are also good on audio and Jim Dale’s rendition of Hermione’s oft-repeated line sorry Harry has become a household joke). At some point, I developed the habit of listening to books on tape to keep my mind occupied when I was doing something tedious – read: cleaning my room or middle school math homework – and it’s a habit I’ve held onto as time passes. So in my second-ever blog post here, I’d like to introduce you to a lovely book that I recently listened to on audio (they’re not cassette tapes anymore!):
The Graveyard Book
, written and read by Neil Gaiman.

The book is about a boy named Nobody – “Bod” for short – Owens who grows up in a graveyard after his family is murdered in the first chapter (my mom tells me that this makes it hard to sell, but don’t let it scare you off!). When he arrives as a baby the ghosts extend “the Freedom of the Graveyard” to him and, throughout his childhood, the graveyard offers both protection and a place for adventure. As the novel progresses, Bod’s curiosity and childhood/pre-teen stubbornness, manage to get him into a whole lot of tricky situations both inside his home and out in the village (ghouls and bullies, to name just a few). Though on occasion Bod makes his own way out of danger, more often than not he’s helped by the graveyard’s inhabitants, ghosts and others who are both loving family and strict educators to him. All the way through, Gaiman’s novel reminds us of the prediction of its first chapter: “It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will take a graveyard.”

Bod’s world is so full of the community of the graveyard, that, for me, the most poignant moments in The Graveyard Book come when he is -- necessarily -- excluded from the ghostly world. In one of my favorite chapters, “Danse Macabre,” Bod finds the whole graveyard bustling and cleaning for an event to take place the next day that no one will tell him anything about. When the day comes, Bod finds himself alone in the graveyard and: “Panic started then, a low-level panic. It was the first time in his ten years that Bod could remember feeling abandoned in the place he had always thought of as his home.” What happens next is a beautiful dance between the dead and the living, but when Bod wakes up the next morning he again finds himself in a graveyard where no one will explain the event to him. Here’s a lovely passage of him trying to figure out what’s going on:

   Josiah Worthington was standing beside him.

   Bod said, “You began the dance. With the Mayor. You danced with her.”

   Josiah Worthington looked at him and said nothing.

  “You did,” said Bod.

   Josiah Worthington said, “The dead and the living do not mingle, boy. We are no longer a part of their world; they are no part of ours. If it happened that we danced the danse macabre with them, the dance of death, then we would not speak of it, and we certainly would not speak of it to the living.”

  “But I’m one of you.”

  “Not yet, boy. Not for a lifetime.”

           Though Bod’s situation is particular and fantastic, the themes that come out of passages like this seem pretty universal to growing up. I’ve never played with ghosts in a graveyard, but the idea of leaving home to have one’s own “lifetime” and adventures seems particularly relevant. Which is, I think, why I found myself tearing up (a little) in public as Neil Gaiman finished his reading of The Graveyard Book. Who knew I could find so much in common with Nobody Owens?

And now I'm tearing up at the thought that we have less than two months of this lovely interlude of Lizzie at home before she sets out on a lifetime of adventures.



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