I hope you get the Garland Jeffries reference!
Any-who. Neil Gaiman won the 2009 Newbery for The Graveyard Book, adding another notch to his award belt and crossing another goal off his writer’s bucket list. For it seems that Gaiman can do anything. Collaborate with Terry Pratchett? Easy-peasy. Write a comic book series? No problem. Create stand-out adult AND children’s novels? With his eyes closed and two hands tied behind his back.
The Graveyard Book is about a boy, Nobody Owens, raised in a graveyard by ghosts. Why he’s there, I won’t reveal. I don’t want to give away too much. But suffice it to say, the reason is not pretty. We check in on Nobody every couple of years or so, and things go well until the outside world discovers him. Then the suspense ratchets up as Nobody moves into the path of someone who wants him dead.
Yes, this is a frightening book (doesn’t all of Gaiman’s work grab its readers by their throats and nearly throttle them?). It’s a far cry from all the other Newbery winners, most of which are realistic tales about the usual childhood tribulations. Plenty of the winners feature tragic deaths, but only Louis Sachar’s Holes comes close to the frightening randomness of violence seen in Gaiman’s book.
So, why did it win? According to the Newbery site, “A delicious mix of murder, fantasy, humor and human longing, the tale of Nobody Owens is told in magical, haunting prose.” Yes, it’s the prose. Here’s the first sentence:
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
It stands on a page, alone, white print against a black background, illustrated with a hand thrusting a knife three-quarters of the way across a two-page spread. Turn the page:
The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately. ¶The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
Turn back a page. Yes, even though it’s gray, that’s definitely blood on the knife. Gaiman’s stark, cruel, shiver-inducing language doesn’t allow for any other possibility. (A solemn tip of the hat to Dave McKean, the illustrator — there aren’t many there, but “what’s there is cherce”.) Turn forward again and keep going, but only if you have a huge chunk of time on your hands. It’ll be hard to stop after this point.
All my sources mention something about Kipling’s The Jungle Book being one of Gaiman’s inspiration here. I read Kipling so long ago that I can’t judge. I suppose I’ll have to read it again, perhaps alternating chapters with ones from The Graveyard Book. Yes, that sounds like a plan.
Here’s that Garland Jeffries song: