It's a fantasy children's story that opens with a brutal murder of a family, and a baby who escapes a powerful magical enemy... Is it Harry Potter? No, it's The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
I hadn't planned on comparing these two books, but as I started writing about The Graveyard Book, Harry Potter jumped to mind. Both books feature a prophesy that a boy will bring down a great evil. Both feature a boy who is an orphan, who is adopted by an odd family of sorts, and must sort out life in magical England. And both start out with murder.
The Graveyard Book is much more direct about the murder. We are in the murderer's POV to start the book. I think it works because while the suspense is immediate (you see a knife and blood) there's no gore or terror. We don't have to witness it happening, which would be just too much for a children's book. Still the murder has obviously just happened, and the chase across the first few chapters really carries you into the rest of the book. It is incredibly well done. And almost nothing is explained at first.
In fact I'd say that the opening to The Graveyard Book is better than that of Harry Potter, which takes time to build. They're both wonderful of course, and it is that meandering story path, instead of neck-twisting turns, that make both of these stories so fun for fans. Gaiman just starts out faster, before slowing down to enjoy the story.
After the exciting opening The Graveyard Book settles down into a series of loosely connected, fun magical adventures, then ramps up the tension toward the end. Harry Potter follows the same general path, and both drop hints about the central mystery (who is the secret murderer?) throughout the rest of the book. I like that we have time to explore the new world and the new odd family with these characters. That's another great thing about these two novels: Both take the time to establish a strong sense of wonder.
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And of course in all children's literature, you have to separate your characters from their parents. This is usually done by making them an orphan, or sending the parents to a exotic locale (in my story I sent the parents to prison). The point is to not make regaining the parents an attainable goal, otherwise the children will spend much of the book trying to find their parents.
That's something to think about: For middle-grade fiction especially you must remove the parents. Only after removing the safety and structure of parents, can you test your characters by introducing them into a new world full of wonder. Then you watch them flounder until they learn how to succeed. Sounds like a good recipe for the hero myth. Actually that sounds like the process of growing up: Leaving your parents and learning how to manage the overwhelming world.
So then, what makes this book work? It has enough suspense to get you invested early. But after the graveyard ghosts become the boy's family, the delight of the story is in their relationship, and following the boy's growth. It's a great story.
You should read it! Eric