It's difficult to pin down a genre that covers Neil's work; in fact, he eschews the very notion of "genre fiction" and would probably tell you that his genre is "good writing." But, since genres are helpful in selecting books, Neil's works generally fall into (but are not limited to) the genres of fantasy, dark fantasy, and science fiction.
2009 Newbery Award Winner and 2010 UK CILIP Carnegie Medal Winner The Graveyard Book
Fortunately The Milk, "the best book about milk since War and Milk" ~Neil Gaiman
Listen to Neil Gaiman describe what inspired him to write Chu's First Day of School
Neil grew up an avid reader. "That was who I was, that was what I did" (White, 1999, para. 5). He read everything he could get his hands on growing up in England. Books were an escape and an inspiration.
He read all of the classics because these were the only books the library had for children at that time. It's one of the reasons Neil is such a strong supporter of libraries and giving children a wealth of reading choices.
All of his life, Neil wanted to be a writer. He had very unconventional ideas. His writing inspiration was the world around him. He found himself asking, "what if...?", and this curiosity is reflected in his writings.
He did not write his first children's book until 1997, well after becoming a successful writer of adult fiction. He credits his children with giving him writing ideas.
Neil's advice to writers, based on his own experience, is “Ideas come from daydreaming. They come from drifting” (Shnelbach, 2016, para. 1). He asks himself, "if only", "I wonder", and "wouldn't it be interesting if" (Gaiman, n.d., paras. 20-22).
Neil describes his writing process.
Neil says that his best ideas come from being bored and having the freedom to think about the world, far from the constant distraction of everyday life (Grady, 2016, paras. 3-6).
A sampling of Neil's writings for children reveals an author who precisely knows his audience and understands how to blend reality and fantasy in such a way that readers can escape the bonds of their ordinary world. While many of his children's books are a bit on the macabre side, he has written several books (such as Fortunately The Milk and Crazy Hair) that are more lighthearted. As such, it's difficult to pin down any one writing "style" for Neil, which adds to his appeal as an author; he recognizes that children enjoy many different types of stories and writes accordingly. Let's look at three examples:
Neil's story Fortunately The Milk - about a father concocting an elaborate and fantastical story about why he was late getting the milk for their breakfast cereal - transports the reader into a magical world of monsters, aliens, and dinosaurs, with lots of suspense, drama, and humor. The fate of the milk is the thread that weaves the entire story together. The story wins because it is silly, at times nonsensical, but relatable in that any child can imagine what kinds of crazy things can happen during a rather mundane trip to the store.
Neil's writing in Fortunately The Milk is incredibly descriptive and tight, with lots of dialogue, providing a focus that captures the reader's attention. Above all, this book is funny, whimsical, and action-packed, making it an engaging read for children.
"It reads like an extemporaneous riff by a clever father asked a question he doesn't want to answer, and it makes an excellent gift for those heroic fathers who consider reading aloud to their children one of parenthood's greatest joys." ~ Publishers Weekly
"Everyone has told a tale that sounds unbelievable, but Gaiman’s new work is a tribute to the art of storytelling. Even the most cynical reader will relax into a far-fetched account of why it took so long to bring home the milk." ~ School Library Journal
Visit this link for a Fortunately The Milk activity pack.
Blueberry Girl was written for Neil's goddaughter and reads as a prayer, full of hope and strength. It is a must-read for every young girl. Essentially the story is a rhyming poem, which most young children delight in. In this story, Neil uncovers human needs that we all share - the need to be brave, to be honest, to learn from life experience and to forge one's own path.
This story is pure magic. The blueberry girl is every girl; her hopes and dreams, desires and fears are universally felt. Because it is primarily written for a child audience, the words are simple, the lines are short, and there is a comforting, gentle rhythm (word and phrase repetition) that carries the reader blissfully through the story. There can be no doubt, however, that, like most of Neil's children's books, this was also written with adults in mind. After all, the prayer goes out to those who will help guide the blueberry girl throughout her childhood; we as adults are part of that prayer, too.
"Share this book with anyone you know who is having a little girl, has a little girl or is a little girl." ~ Kirkus Review
"On each page a different girl—short, tall, white, brown, younger, older—runs or jumps or swims, accompanied by animals meant to guard and protect her. Fans of Gaiman and Vess will pounce on this creation; so too will readers who seek for their daughters affirmation that sidesteps traditional spiritual conventions." ~ Publishers Weekly
Rich with suspense, The Wolves in the Walls is a grim tale and a departure from the two books above. It plays on the classic 'monster in the closet' fear that many children share, but then takes a turn for the absurd - and the humorous. Neil uses a great deal of onomatopoeia ("creepy, crumpling noises", "thumping") and foreshadowing throughout the story, which are devices used to ratchet up the sense of uneasiness. Yet, the story is a fun read for children because of the unexpected plot twists and the sense of humor that Neil assigns to the wolves. Plus, it's no secret that children often like reading scary tales, as evidenced by the popularity of R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series.
Children can identify with Lucy, the main character, as she tries to convince her family that the noises she hears and the eyes she sees portend something ominous, only to be brushed aside. Neil effectively taps into a childhood fear and turns it on its head, much to the delight of the reader.
"Lucy is a character every reader will love: she is resilient, brave and thoughtful, and she does not tolerate anyone or anything terrorizing her family. Her attitude toward getting the wolves out of her house is inspiring and ingenious, because everyone who's anyone knows that when the people come out of the walls, it's all over." ~ Carlie Kraft Webber, Goodreads
"If you asked me to pick an illustrated children's book, published in the last 10 years, that stands a good chance of becoming a classic - whatever that means exactly - I wouldn't have to think about it for very long. I'd choose 'The Wolves in the Walls', the soulful and fiendish book by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean." ~ Dwight Garner, Sunday Times (London)
Visit this link for The Wolves in the Walls discussion points for young readers.
Click here to visit MouseCircus, "The Official Neil Gaiman Website for Young Readers". It's filled with games, activities, and discussion guides!
More information about Neil Gaiman (bio, awards) can be downloaded here.
Click here to download a list of references used for this project.
Image credits (where not indicated on image):