'The Graveyard Book,' 'Second Siege' cast macabre, magic spells

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For most children, growing up consists of making friends, going to school, trips to the doctor, dentist and to relatives' houses. Not so for Nobody Owens ("Bod" for short). He is the main character in Neil Gaiman's deliciously macabre "The Graveyard Book" (Harpercollins, $17.99, ages 10 and up), which yesterday won the Newbery Medal. The medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children of the American Library Association to the author of the Outstanding American Children's Book.

Bod's family was killed when he was a baby. He escaped only by bumping down the stairs, into the street and crawling into a graveyard. There -- after much debate -- he is allowed to stay and is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, a loving couple who are no longer counted among the living.

Bod also has a solitary, vampire-like guardian, Silas, who tutors and provides for him. Like Silas, Bod is granted "Freedom of the Graveyard," by its inhabitants. This means that he can walk through walls, pass through graves, "haunt" others and "fade -- that is, become invisible, slipping through and beneath the notice of humans.

In each chapter we read of Bod's childhood adventures. His benevolent search to find a fitting headstone for a dead witch shows his kindness -- and his eventual choice adds humor.

His rescue from a ghoulish, desert-like landscape beneath a grave adds chills, as does his encounter with the terrifying invisible guardian of a mysterious treasure in an underground crypt.

But Bod must not set foot outside the graveyard. Jack, the man who almost killed him as a baby, is slowly and methodically searching for him.

Gaiman's pacing is excellent as he gradually tells the parallel stories of Bod's unique graveyard childhood and the ongoing efforts of Jack to find and eliminate him.

Smooth writing, intriguing characters, amusing wordplay and an inventive plot make this a sure bet for fans of horror, mystery, fantasy or just plain good storytelling.

'The Second Siege'

Excellent storytelling is also the hallmark of "The Second Siege" (Random House, $16.99, ages 10 and up) by Henry Neff. Continuing the story begun in "The Hound of Rowan," "The Second Siege" follows the further adventures of Max McDaniels, a second-year student at Rowan Academy, a private boarding school for children with magical abilities.

Max received his invitation to Rowan at age 12 after a faded Celtic tapestry in the Chicago Museum of Art came to life before his eyes. At Rowan Max receives his magical education in a setting reminiscent of Harry Potter's Hogwarts. Dormitory rooms are created "on-the-fly" from students' imaginations and they may resemble a Persian bedroom or log cabin.

Each student is entrusted with the care of a rare magical creature from the school's sanctuary. And all food is cooked by a hag and a reformed ogre.

Now in his second year at Rowan and possessing a store of Old Magic, which enables him to exhibit terrifying speed and strength in physical combat, Max sets out with his roommate David Menlo to recover the Book of Thoth. This powerful magical object is being sought by the ancient demon Astaroth in his quest to conquer Rowan and destroy the world. As world governments collapse and Rowan is besieged by Astaroth's demonic forces, Max and David must prevent Astaroth from acquiring the book.

While at first glance the reader may be reminded of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the similarities are simply surface. "Tapestry" is much more an adventure tale than boarding school story. And while there definitely is "magic" in Neff's tale, the actual spells and wizardry are not always at the forefront.

Neff skillfully weaves elements of fantasy, mythology and history into this intriguing series. Readers will be sure to enjoy this second book in an intended trilogy.

Ian Eberhardt is the children's librarian in Carnegie Library's Hill District Branch.


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