I would like to say my fascination with The Jungle Book emerged out of some inarticulate desire for the wild and fantastic, but it’s probably just because it was the only Disney movie at my Grandma’s house. I loved it, as all kids love singing bears and dancing orangutans, but then in third grade I found the real thing: The Illustrated Junior Library edition of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. And oh, here was something much stranger and more powerful than the Bear Necessities—here was a story about revenge and love and growing up and the Law of the Jungle. Here were jackals and kites, panthers and snakes, and secret languages to speak to each of them.
The Jungle Book was also, as I discovered over the course of a couple of history degrees, a piece of colonial fantasy which perpetuated an image of Indians as “half devil and half-child,” and reimagined the jungle as a kind of unsettled frontier in need of wise governance. But I can still reread it and find the bones of something much wiser and older in Mowgli’s story. It’s something like a changeling story, except it’s the parents rather than the baby who are switched at birth. And it’s certainly a border story, which happens in the fractured spaces between civilization and wildness, humans and animals, and the real and fantastic. And, of course, it’s the very oldest kind of story—a coming-of-age story.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is The Jungle Book if Mowgli had been born in London and raised by ghosts rather than wolves, and if Kipling had possessed a much keener and kinder sense of humor. It begins, as so many children’s books do, with a brutal triple murder. One baby boy survives, and toddles to the nearby graveyard. The ghosts hide him from “the man Jack” who hunts him, and Nobody Owens grows up with the Freedom of the Graveyard. His teachers are Silas (“a solitary type” reminiscent of Bagheera) and Miss Lipescu (a Hound of God, something like Baloo), and his best friend is a ghost-witch named Liza Hempstock. It is very, very good.
It doesn’t have the narrative flow you might expect from a young adult novel. It’s written as a series of interlocking short stories, filled with weird, Kipling-shaped echoes. The chapter titled “The Hounds of God” closely follows “Kaa’s Hunting” in The Jungle Book, although there are more ghouls and werewolves than Kipling might have pictured. But it’s not quite a retelling—my very favorite pieces are strictly, uniquely Gaiman-like.
And what does Gaiman-like mean, for those who haven’t consumed every piece of fiction he’s ever been involved in? First and foremost, it means lots of the macabre, the eerie, and the scary. Not B-horror movie scary, but the kind of almost-too-scary-for-children that draws children like flies. The Graveyard Book is nowhere near so unsettling as Coraline, with the Other Mother and her black buttons for eyes, but there are still a few moments of sudden, startling chill. When Nobody asks the Lady on the Grey if he can ride her horse, for example, and she answers, “One day. Everybody does,” and you realize she’s a prettier and more talkative Grim Reaper.
But being Gaiman-like also involves a lot of humor. The ghosts themselves offer most of it, from Mother Slaughter, whose tombstone has worn away to leave only the puzzling epitaph of LAUGH, to the poet Nehemiah Trot (1741-1774), who is still waiting for his poetry to be recognized in posterity. But Nobody himself is also a wonderfully endearing mixture of naiveté and cleverness. His tutor Miss Lupescu asks him to list the different types of people:
“Bod thought for a moment. ‘The living,’ he said. ‘Er. The dead.’ He stopped. Then, ‘…Cats?’ he offered, uncertainly.”
It isn’t just the combination of eeriness and wit that makes something Gaiman-like. It’s also the presence of something very much like wisdom—or at least clever, short lines that tell you a great deal about the nature of life, death, and love, which is nine tenths of wisdom. Witness Silas, Nobody’s enigmatic guardian, telling Bod why it’s important to stay alive (a subject of some confusion for a boy raised by the dead):
“You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”
And the last and perhaps most important thing that makes The Graveyard Book into Good Gaiman, or maybe just Good Fantasy, is the sense of things lurking unexplained and unseen. We see the story from Nobody’s perspective, and the greater forces of the world are not always visible to a young boy trapped in a graveyard. Who and what Silas is, and what the man Jack is, and what rules govern the boundaries between life and death—all these things are left obscured. Because, I imagine:
“Because there are mysteries. Because there are things that people are forbidden to speak about. Because there are things they do not remember.”
EDIT: I am giving away a copy of The Graveyard Book! With a cover I made! Go here to enter.
 To anyone tempted to defend Kipling, empire, or The Jungle Book, may I say shhhhh. I wrote my MA thesis on the jungle in British children’s literature, which means I have, as Liam Neeson would say, “a very particular set of skills.”
 It won the Hugo, Locus, Newberry, and Carnegie, and was nominated for pretty much everything else, which should tell you that a lot of much more qualified people thought it was very, very good.