Friday, 9 March 2012
Neil Gaiman - "The Graveyard Book" - Like The Jungle Book? A bit, actually, now you mention it...
This is the first book by Neil Gaiman that I have read. And admittedly, it was because I 'had to' as part of a course I was studying. I don't think I would have picked it up otherwise. And I would have been culturally poorer for it!
This book rightly won the Carnegie Prize. I say 'rightly' because, in my opinion, it does everything a children's book should do (more of that below), it beautifully combines realism and fantasy, and cleverly mixes up different genres (gothic, coming-of-age, thriller, romance, crime).
So what does it do that a children's book should? This is a very leading question, isn't it? Why should a children's book have to DO anything? And should the things it does be any different to the things a book for an adult audience does? I have set myself up to be contradicted and ridiculed, but hey ho. This is what I think...
For me, a story for children must, above all else, speak to the reader without patronising them. It should not have an obvious didactic message or moral. The themes should not be restricted to 'nice' stories with cutesy, happy endings like so many children's books I've come across lately. (I mean come on! The three little pigs EAT the wolf, right? The huntsman in Little Red Riding Hood kills the wolf, right? Why do some publishers think children will be horribly disturbed and mentally scarred by these endings? OK, if I was a wolf I would be greatly disturbed. They seem to have been persecuted somewhat. What others wolves are there? Peter and The Wolf, the wolf in Snow White that gets killed instead of her. Oh hang on, that's a wild boar isn't it? Anyway, poor wolves I say!) There is no need to sanitise absolutely everything that children read and Gaiman understands this.
The opening of the story, I think, is actually quite chilling, with the narrator following a murderer as he tries to track down his toddler escapee, sniffing the air in the manner of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (he was TERRIFYING, do you remember?). Quite a haunting image for an adult or parent. But for children, it's instead rather exciting. It's so removed from reality that it just grips them immediately. It doesn't (despite what we might worry about) invoke terror or make them recoil in horror. Adults tend to project their own fears onto children. Unnecessarily so.
And so Gaiman plunges us into his world of murderers and ghosts, schoolboys and bullies, vampires and werewolves, hell and, finally, release. The coming-of-age aspect interplays subtly and wonderfully with the ghostly inhabitants and the protagonist's inability to see them (or perhaps to believe in them) as he is drawn to the real, tangible and sexual world outside. We understand that he cannot stay in the graveyard. He understands he cannot stay in the graveyard. His 'parents' understand he cannot stay in the graveyard. Yet it represents a brave and bold step for him to take.
Children's literature often involves a 'retreat and return' element (see Peter Pan, Swallows and Amazons, Where the Wild Things Are, etc. etc.). In The Graveyard Book the retreat is to the graveyard but the return isn't to the safe, cosy nursery of Wendy in Peter Pan or the welcoming bedroom of Where the Wild Things Are. It is to the unknown 'real' world. We're left feeling optimistic but at the same time unsure of the future.
I love that.
It represents a change of state. A mental shift in the protagonist. A physical shift too in his bodily state. When children come of age and step into the world they ARE unsure of the future. And we hope they are optimistic about it too.
And this book leaves me feeling optimistic about the future of literature for our little boys and girls.
The Graveyard Book official website