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For good or for evil – and I firmly believe that it is for good – Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will,” said Silas, “take a graveyard.”

Between 2003 and 2004 I lived in Edinburgh. I still consider it one of the happiest times of my life (admittedly things have been quite rosy of late as well). Despite only living in the city for less than a year, I managed to move apartments three times (!), spending the longest period of time in a cosy flat on Dalkeith Road. Edinburgh is a beautiful part of the world, old and venerable, but with a vivacious social scene. It was not the living that concerned me though. It was the dead. On my street alone there were two graveyards. The Meadows, a large public park popular with picnickers in the summer was reputedly a black death burial ground. Sometimes while I wandered home through the park in the middle of the night I used to wonder if  the dead were to rise, would the living inhabitants of the city have a chance?

The Graveyard Book opens with a brutal murder of a family, which is survived by a small, nameless infant. Through a quirk of fate the child manages to crawl all the way to a local graveyard and is rescued from a horrible fate by the taciturn Silas and a group of ghosts who reside there. Mr and Mrs Owens, dead for centuries, are charged with raising the child. Silas, who is neither living or dead and therefore unable to enjoy the advantages of either, becomes the infant’s protector.

The man Jack is still hunting for him, somewhere out there in the city.

As no one knows the child’s name, he is given the moniker Nobody Owens, or ‘Bod’. Given the ‘Freedom of the Graveyard’, he learns how to hide from the living and some of the secrets of the dead (but not all of them of course – that will have to wait). After a few years Bod meets a lonely young girl, Scarlett, his first ‘living’ friend. She of course assumes he is imaginary. The world outside the graveyard remains a mystery to Bod. While some of the dead do help in his education, most of their knowledge is centuries out of date. Scarlett provides a rare insight into what ‘life’ is really like. While Silas is able to protect him within the gates, there are plenty of dangers inside as well. Ghouls go hunting among the graves at night and the souls buried in unconsecrated ground are restless. Bod will have to learn to survive, as the man Jack is waiting for him. As he grows older, the boy who lives with the dead becomes more eager to meet him and find justice for his murdered family.

Neil Gaiman has become an accomplished novelist since leaving comics. In fact, I find more to recommend in his writing with each title. Many people have sung the praises of American Gods which I found derivative of some of his earlier work with the Sandman comic. In all his work there are certain recurring ideas – once again Death appears here personified as a beautiful young woman – but over the years he has discovered an ever more confident voice as an young adult and children’s fiction author.

I have in the past been overly critical of Gaiman, though no fault of his own. I have no problem with his writing, so much as I do have one with some of his fans. I have heard some crow that Un Lun Dun had managed to out-Gaiman the author’s own Neverwhere.  With The Graveyard Book I feel that he has raised his game once again. The story combines his usual whimsy with a gripping and increasingly epic storyline. There is an incredible vision of a Ghoul City that resembles Gaiman’s depiction of Hell in Sandman. The killer of Bod’s family is referred to as ‘the man Jack’, and his introduction is chilling for the emphasis on his knife, lending it more agency than the murderer himself. Then there is the delightful device of giving the full name and epitaph of each of the graveyard ghosts when Bod meets them.

Simply put this is a lovingly written, smart and funny book about growing up with death.

Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.

The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.

With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.

Hunters send in

Expeditions

Radio back

Their positions

Still, we’ve lost

A dozen there

Lost inside

My crazy hair.

Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.

Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues –  McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.

In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article

“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”

What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.

In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.

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