I first read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman before it won the Newbery Award in 2009 (given by the American Library Association to the most distinguished children’s book published the previous year). Truly I was not sure what to expect- other than good writing because Gaiman is proficient in his craft (although I do not typically care for his books), and something having to do with the tagline, “It takes a graveyard to raise a child.” Well this title certainly has the good writing (the Newbery is usually a pretty good indicator) and the tagline was applicable, but in no way did I expect the sweetness of this sometimes almost gruesome book.
Gaiman can write suspense extremely well- even when I knew all would be well in the end I was paging through and staying up late to finish. (I am one of those readers that most often checks out the end to see the final destination, and then turns back to read to enjoy the trip getting there.) Gaiman can capture ambiguous situations between people well too- and not make them happy ever after just because that would be nice. Readers end up really liking Nobody Owens (Bod), the main character, and the denizens of the graveyard that have dedicated themselves to raising him and keeping him safe.
It was particularly enjoyable that much of the mythology in Gaiman’s created world was related to “standard canon”, but not duplicative. For example, the hounds of heaven are a diverse group that protects the borders between the dead and the living; it seemed that one was a werewolf and the other a vampire, but those labels are never used explicitly. So Gaiman draws on common fantasy archetypes, but is not bound to standard understandings that would limit how the characters behave. Gaiman allows Bod, even though a live human boy, to perfect certain skills (fading, dream walking) that seem entirely plausible in the universe he created. Some of the chapters are almost standalone stories, as we see Bod learning the things he needs to know as a part of growing up. It is clear the book has the same flavor as the Jungle Book stories, on which Gaiman says this title was loosely based.
If you cannot tell, I really liked this book a lot. Every now and then, I would stop rushing pell-mell to find out what happened next, to appreciate some bit of dialogue or description. Gaiman really knows his craft and there is a poetic flavor at points in the narrative, a kind of lyricism, which resonates with an older reader. This is a very satisfactory read and would be appropriate for thoughtful readers 11 and up, and ones that want a bit of an adventure, but do not need a heavily action oriented book.