As you may have inferred from previous posts, I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman, so it’s not that surprising that my shelf of “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” has more than a few Gaiman titles sprinkled throughout. But the Gaiman book that I really want my daughter to start with and embrace, once she starts exploring the ever-growing shelf of titles intended for her future self, is The Graveyard Book.
And there are many reasons why any parent would want their child to read The Graveyard Book. It’s a wonderfully-told tale, one of the few books that I’m legitimately evangelical about. (“Every single person who’s read it on my recommendation has thanked me profusely afterwards,” he said with a painfully swollen head.) It’s a multiple award-winning title, receiving both the Newbery and Carnegie Medals (which is kind of a big deal). It’s just a very, very moving book for me – to the point where I don’t even feel up to writing one of my typical 2,000-word rants about it. Smarter people than I have written some really beautiful odes to The Graveyard Book, and I have this sneaking suspicion that I just can’t do it justice, which is probably a safe assumption.
I’ll just let Gaiman explain what the book is about himself:
Doesn’t that sound intriguing? Nobody Owens is this spectacular young boy being raised by ghosts in a graveyard and his maturation and development as a character and as a real, breathing person (amongst dead, non-breathing spirits) really is something to behold. But, if I’m being honest, that’s still not getting to the real heart of the reason why I’m determined to make my child read The Graveyard Book one day.
What’s my reason for pushing The Graveyard Book ? Fair warning: It’s a pretty dumb reason.
Here goes – Gaiman makes no secret of the fact that The Graveyard Book is a riff on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, a classic work of juvenile literature… that I’ve never read. (I suck.) However, as a child, I was a huge fan of the 1967 Disney version of The Jungle Book. I have some extremely fond memories of going to see it in the theatre with my mom during one of its theatrical re-releases and, when my daughter was born, The Jungle Book was one of the first DVDs that I bought for her.
I hadn’t seen it since the 1980s, so, when she was finally old enough to watch it, I was really excited to experience the movie again through her eyes. And yet, five minutes into the DVD, I was having a hard time staying with the movie. Why? Well, it didn’t help that they use the word “kill” about seven times in the first two minutes (words like “gun” and “kill” don’t go over well with my daughter), but my biggest issue revolved around how completely thunderstruck I was by Mowgli’s complete indifference at leaving home.
At the beginning of the movie, Mowgli is found, as an infant, in the jungle and is raised by a kindly family of wolves. Ten years later, Bagheera the panther and a council of wolves decide that Mowgli needs to leave the jungle and travel to the nearby man-village in order to live out his days as a man and escape the wrath of the tiger Shere Khan, who hates men. At first, Mowgli leaves with Bagheera under false pretenses, but then, once he learns that the panther wants him to leave the jungle forever, he NEVER ONCE mentions his wolf family EVER again. He’s not concerned about them, he doesn’t weep for his lost wolf-mother and father. He’s just petulant that he can’t roam around in the jungle all day and wants to strike off on his own.
And I HATED that. I hated, hated, hated that. When I was a kid, I loved and envied Mowgli, particularly watching him pal around with that big ol’ papa-bear Baloo, but, as a thirty-something new father, I wanted to smack that arrogant little jerk upside his head. What kind of sociopath lives with a family, a loving family, for a DECADE and then leaves them one day without giving them a second thought? That kid would’ve DIED if it wasn’t for the affection and care of his wolf family and yet his big conflict in the film is that he doesn’t want to leave his best friend Baloo? A bear that he met about 30 minutes ago? Are you kidding me?
Forget that it makes Mowgli seem like a serial killer, that’s just horrible, horrible storytelling. The folks at Disney completely buried the lead. The emotional crux of the story IS NOT the day-and-a-half relationship between Mowgli and Baloo. The true heart of The Jungle Book should’ve been Mowgli’s relationship with the jungle family that raised him. Am I over-analyzing or expecting too much from a kids’ film? Quite possibly. But, as I watch The Jungle Book with my daughter, watching her laugh and sing along to “The Bare Necessities”, I find myself mourning the scenes that aren’t there – the scenes where we actually see Mowgli struggling with the decision to leave the home he knows to venture out into a world that he doesn’t, the scenes where we see Mowgli acknowledge that if people raise you and care for you for the first ten years of your life, differing species and opposable thumbs be damned, they’re your parents.
THIS, strangely enough, is my dark, secret reason why I adore The Graveyard Book. Those scenes exist in The Graveyard Book. They’re at the climax of the story – right where they belong. The whole book actually leads up to those scenes and they’re note-perfect. If they don’t make you weep with loss and a beautiful sense of self-recognition, you should probably go ahead and move yourself into a graveyard because something inside of you is DEAD.
So, if I’m being completely honest, that’s the real reason, my very specific, very underwhelming reason why I’m bound and determined to have my daughter read The Graveyard Book one day. Forget literary merit. I’ve been moved to action due to an imagined slight from a 40-year-old cartoon. I am not a rational person.
But one day – not now because I want everything to be sunshine and roller coasters for her now – but, ONE DAY, I want her to be able to read something really profound and emotionally honest about the bittersweet joys and agonies of leaving home and I want her to know that she can do so, so much better than Walt’s dead-eyed, sociopathic version of Mowgli and Baloo. And I think The Graveyard Book is a perfect example of just such a book.
I can’t wait to pass it on.