Much has been made about how appropriate a children’s book is that begins on the massacre of a family. Without hesitation, though, I’ll steer my students – fourth-grade and up – toward Neil Gaiman’s Newberry-lauded novel.
Because in a world where a murder demands blood splashed across the screen and fear is assumedly born in gory, saw-blade terror we need books like this. Yes, it starts with a grizzly murder. But it’s a most patient, poetic murder: balanced on tiptoes more sure-footed than the toddler who escapes the blade and wanders up the road to the titular hilltop cemetery.
The murderer pursues, of course. But Nobody Owens is safe so long as he walks the headstones. He lives and learns from the sundry creatures of the night who adopt him, Mowgli-style. He spreads his wings and flies too close to the sun his night-haunting guardians avoid. And we are there with him as he explores the sprawling graveyard, navigating the pitfalls and joys of growing up in a scary world.
Because what’s scarier than living? Puberty? Heartbreak? Naïveté and betrayal?
Surely no vampire, no witch, no werewolf. But it’s the living that becomes the goal, when you live among the dead.