You know those “Best of 2012” book lists? They generally make me bitterly resent the fact that I have constraints like work, exercise, laundry, and people. This year I had read one or maybe two titles from those lists (Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a graphic “novel,” isn’t doing as well as it should on those lists: try carrying around a box of artwork – no, you can’t get it on your smartphone — and reading it when you have a few free minutes. Just try. You will fail.)
As usual, I’m late to the party. My favorite book of 2012 is not a 2012 title but is from 2008: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which won the Newbery (2009). Like many of my librarian colleagues, I check out more books than I can actually read. When The Graveyard Book was hot, I checked it out, read five pages, waited a few weeks, and then was forced to return it, unread.
This year I listened to it on audio (Neil Gaiman himself is the narrator) and I was stunned at how much I loved it. Genre-wise, it’s fantasy: a toddler’s family is murdered, and he miraculously escapes and wanders into a graveyard. At the bidding of his dead mother, the inhabitants promise to protect him. He acquires the name Nobody (a great name to hide behind, because there’s a killer after him) and grows up with the freedom of the graveyard, protected from the outside world, while having the advantages of knowing a group of people (dead) from different times in British history who love him and want to protect him. They’re funny, well-drawn, and poignant (the witch is my favorite). His childhood – barring the fact that he’s surrounded by and supervised by the dead – has all the markings of a normal, happy childhood. He’s schooled, makes mistakes, goofs off, dreams, and gradually grows up.
Recently, I recommended it to a parent who had come in looking for something for her 12-year-old son. When I showed it to her, she shook her head and declared it “too dark” and told me she didn’t want something that showed the world as a dark place. This conversation took place (literally) five days after the Newtown shootings. Some fights aren’t worth it. She left with some insipid soccer fiction. The world is a dark place. Nobody’s case makes that clear, but he still manages to have wonderful friends and a good life in spite of that.