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February 15, 2011

Security Blanket: Neil Gaiman Novels

As I've mentioned before (endlessly, I know), my son Dash, now six, is a big fan of all things spooky and scary—ghosts, witches, vampires. The Nightmare Before Christmas has been a favorite movie since age three. So on reputation and subject matter alone, it was a no-brainer that he would, sooner or later, enjoy the children’s novels of Neil Gaiman.

Now, Dash devoured several of Gaiman's picture books—the macabre The Dangerous Alphabet, the sweet Blueberry Girl (out in paperback in March!)—the moment they came out. Both are standouts for their cleverness, but also feature a light touch that I found surprising, having only read Gaiman's early graphic-novel work (mainly Sandman) to that point. But even in Dangerous Alphabet, the writer demonstrates that he doesn't believe in sheltering young readers.

The novel Coraline, which I first encountered in perhaps its most frightening version, the P. Craig Russell–illustrated graphic novel (at left), even scared me a little. (The animated film is a Dora episode by comparison, drained of a good deal of the book's creepiness; I found it a little disappointing.) I was blown away by this book—by the storytelling skill, sure, but also by the seamless way Gaiman folds psychology into the tale: Is all this magical, creepy stuff really happening, or is it in the mind of a lonely, creative girl who's furious at her parents for neglecting her and flirting with the idea of an “other” mother and father, then realizing you have to be careful what you wish for? As with most great writing of this kind, the answer is up to the reader—and either way, the ending is deeply satisfying.

But Dash had just turned three when I finished Coraline, and it isn't scary in a playful way—it's really scary! (Even the original chapter-book version, which is slightly less vivid for not being explicitly illustrated, can induce chills—plus, at the time it was a bit ahead of Dash’s reading level anyway.) So while I was convinced of Gaiman's brilliance as a writer for kids, and I knew my son would eventually love his work, I felt I had to put this one off.

Not too long afterward, I got a copy of Gaiman's kid novella Odd and the Frost Giants, a Norse-mythology tale about an self-exiled boy and some anthropomorphic forest animals who need his help. (Gaiman’s work for children often seems to focus on kids forced, for one reason or another, to cope with difficult circumstances without parental help, at least of the traditional kind.) This was the perfect introduction: gentler and far less creepy than Coraline, it allows the author a chance to show off his lyrical side. It's a lovely book, the one that convinced my wife of Gaiman’s preeminence among active writers for children, as Coraline had done for me. And Dash took to its tone—offbeat and calmly proud of it—instantly.

I'm not sure if there was a teaser on our copy of Odd, or if Dash found out about it somewhere else, but he became obsessed with Gaiman's The Graveyard Book about this time, just based on the title. (The 19th-century graveyard one must walk through to get from our house to our town library might have had something to do with it, too.) I’d heard particularly great things about this one, including that it had won a Newbery, so I picked up a copy...and then discovered that it opens with the methodical murder of all the members of a family except their infant boy. (The better to set up the child-on-his-own trope, of course.)

I froze for a while. Dash hadn't encountered anything like this grim, realistic violence in his reading so far. Could he handle it? (Or was the question really, as so often, Could I handle it?) I mentally hemmed and hawed for a while, and Dash conveniently forgot about The Graveyard Book for a bit, allowing me some time to flip through the book some more on my own. I soon found that after the difficult setup, it settles into a gentler place; it wasn’t without frightening moments now and then, but it didn’t dwell in them, either.

Eventually Dash’s mind turned back to The Graveyard Book, and shortly after his sixth birthday I finally agreed to embark during his bedtime reading—fully aware that I might be launching a series of nightmares, and ready to stop at any time. And he was, no doubt, taken aback by the harshness of the book’s beginning. But I made sure we got past that part and through the true establishment of the premise—the infant is named Nobody and raised properly by the ghosts of all those buried in the titular graveyard—before he went to sleep the first night. No bad dreams resulted. And predictably, Dash was hooked.

So was I. Everything Gaiman had shown himself capable of in the books we’d read before was here in spades. The dark story is handled again with that surprisingly light touch, and it’s a true page-turner. The writing has depth, too, touching on philosophy, poetry, and other “serious” matters without getting bogging down in any. And just when you’re immersed in the thriller, Gaiman gives you a surprise gift—a beautifully lyrical chapter about a once-in-a-generation night when ghosts and the living dance together. (The living, naturally, don’t remember it.) It’s a breath in the middle of the book, a short lift that advances the plot not a whit. And it’s just perfect.

As it turns out, The Graveyard Book is closely based on—in fact, is Gaiman’s homage to—Kipling’s The Jungle Book, with the ghosts in the city graveyard taking the place of the animals who raise Mowgli. As always, Gaiman is subtle about this (I know the Kipling pretty well, and I didn’t even see the connection at first), and he never lets his references to the classic overwhelm his own narrative. You could read his book with no knowledge of Kipling and be perfectly satisfied.

But those familiar with The Jungle Book will find that Gaiman weaves a special magic in reference to it: His book makes you appreciate Kipling’s all the more, shearing it of the weight of Disney associations and “Bare Necessities,” and reminding you that for Mowgli, as for Nobody, this is life-and-death stuff, in the end. This ain’t old-fashioned Disney. (Now, a Pixar take on The Graveyard Book…that I’d pay to see!)

So I’ve learned two things in the course of this long story. First: Neil Gaiman is indeed at the very top level of writers for kids today, and we will continue to seek out and devour everything he produces. (Actually, we can start with Coraline; it wasn’t until I was writing this post that I remembered that I forgot to ever return to it with Dash!)

And second: As seems to usually happen, it’s the books and movies I’m most concerned will freak Dash out that become his very favorites. (And often mine.)

[Cover images courtesy of HarperCollins.]

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