MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Today, we're introducing NPR's Back-Seat Book Club. It's a special segment for all the young folks out there who listen to our program along with their parents in cars or at the kitchen table. Every month, we're offering a special conversation with authors who write books for kids.
First up, a ghoulish Halloween treat called "The Graveyard Book" from the bestselling, award-winning author Neil Gaiman. He's a master of the macabre.
NEIL GAIMAN: I love ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night. I think these things are wonderful, but I'm not a huge fan of horror. I'll tend to use horror as a condiment in the way that you might add salt or ketchup.
NORRIS: And yet, Gaiman uses horror to grab the reader from the very first page.
GAIMAN: It begins, there was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
NORRIS: A murderous knife, a knife held by a man who snuck into an English home and killed an entire family, except for a baby who had wandered from his crib. Heavy stuff, but Gaiman was convinced kids could handle it.
GAIMAN: I was. But I also wanted to make it very, very scary up front because it's never that scary again.
NORRIS: But it is spooky and quirky and, yes, heartwarming. The young boy who escapes the knife toddles his way into a graveyard, where he winds up being raised by ghosts.
We asked for your questions about Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book," and, boy, did our inbox fill up. Many of you just had to know how he conjured up such a story.
GAIMAN: Twenty - what - 25 years ago now, I lived in a very tall, spindly building, which had no kind of yard or garden. But it was just across the lane from a little country churchyard. And my son, who was about 2 years old at the point, loved his little tricycle more than anything in the world. And he couldn't really ride his tricycle around the house because the house was mostly stairs.
So each day, I'd take him across the lane, and he would just pedal his tricycle happily and run around in a little country graveyard, where, you know, you had stones going back 800 years. And I remember just one day thinking: He looks so comfortable here. And it was as if a little door opened in my head because I thought, you know, I could do a story about a kid who is raised in a graveyard, who lives in a graveyard.
And then I thought it would be like "The Jungle Book." In "The Jungle Book," you have a child who wandered into the jungle, is raised by wild animals, is taught all the things that wild animals know. Here I'd have a story about somebody raised by dead people and taught all the things that dead people know, and I'll call it "The Graveyard Book."
AMELIA HERRON: Hi, Mr. Gaiman. I'm a really big fan of "Coraline" and "The Graveyard Book." They're some of my all-time favorites. My name is Amelia Herron. I'm from Manchester, Michigan, and I'm 12 years old. And I have a question. How would you describe "The Graveyard Book" to someone who has never heard of it before, being the author?
GAIMAN: Good question, Amelia. "The Graveyard Book" is eight short stories, each one taking place about two years after the one before, that comprise the first 16 years of a young man who we come to know as Nobody Owens, and his friends call him Bod. Before the story starts, his family are killed, and he takes refuge in a graveyard. He's brought up in the graveyard, learns the things that dead people know, but also learns the value of life.
And in many ways, for me, "The Graveyard Book" was a book about life because you can talk about life and community and family in ways you might not have seen them described before.
ANNA JAFFE: Hi. My name is Anna Jaffe from Cleveland, Ohio.
SADIE BEGAN: Hi. My name is Sadie Began(ph) from Cleveland, Ohio. "The Graveyard Book" is fantastic. Who is your favorite character? Ours is Silas.
JAFFE: It would be awesome if you could make a movie version of the book.
ANNA JAFFE AND SADIE BEGAN: Bye for now, and keep writing. Love, Sadie and Anna.
NORRIS: Several exclamation points there.
GAIMAN: I love Silas. Writing Silas, who's not really alive and isn't really part of the graveyard, was enormously fun for me. I think my favorite of the minor characters was probably a poet named Nehemiah Trot, just because writing his language was so much fun for me.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Nehemiah Trot) Oh, I had my revenge, Master Owens, and it was a terrible one. I wrote and had published a letter, which I nailed to the doors of the public houses in London, where such low, scribbling folk will want to frequent. And I explained that, given the fragility of the genius poetical, I would henceforth write not for them but only for myself and posterity. And that I should, as long as lived, publish no more poems for them.
NORRIS: That was Nehemiah Trot, a poet from the 1700s. He's among the dead who help raise the little boy who lives in the graveyard.
Lindsey Flemmons wants to know how old is the Indigo Man?
GAIMAN: Great question, Lindsey. I'd say the Indigo Man is probably - he's definitely very, very much the oldest thing in the graveyard. Probably 10, 12,000 years old. He was there before they were building Stonehenge.
NORRIS: This is coming in from Michael Curtis. He writes in the middle of the day, so he explains that his fifth grade class is reading the book, and that's why he's on the computer when he isn't - when he should be...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: ...in the classroom. And he wants to know how you came up with the ideas for the odd names for the characters in your story. And the characters really do have wonderful names. Many of them just march across the tongue.
GAIMAN: Truthfully, a lot of the best names in the book, I actually got from headstones. Because one of the things I tended to do while I was writing and researching "The Graveyard Book" is I would go to graveyards. And every now and then, if I saw a - something on a headstone - a really good little epitaph or something, I would write it down.
NORRIS: A lot of our readers gave "The Graveyard Book" a thumbs up, so did the American Library Association. Back in 2009, it gave Neil Gaiman the Newberry Medal. And in his acceptance speech, he said that children's literature is the most important fiction of all because...
GAIMAN: I think it has the capacity to change people, to open their eyes. It's part of the growing process. I love the fact that these days, with "Coraline," I get adult women coming up to me who read "Coraline" when they were girls, saying that because she was brave, there were points in their life where they were brave like her. And they told themselves that they could be like her, and that got them through a hard part of their life. And I feel like I did something that I didn't mean to do, but that was big and important and changed things.
NORRIS: Neil Gaiman, it was a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.
GAIMAN: Ah, thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: That was Neil Gaiman. We were talking to him about "The Graveyard Book."
And a huge thank you to all of NPR's Back-Seat Book Club members who wrote in with questions. To read more questions and Neil Gaiman's answers, head to npr.org.
A special thank you to teachers who got their classes to read the book and to email smart questions. Mr. Hastings' class, Ms. Martin's sixth grade class and Ms. Hathaway's fifth grade class. And also, Ms. Cackley's(ph) third grade class.
And now, book club members, a drum roll, please. Our book for November is "The Phantom Tollbooth," written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Happy reading. And remember to write to Back-Seat Book Club at npr.org with those questions.