So you see, I was thrilled because the Newbery committee recognized that this kind of book can deliver all those things as well. And after listening to the audio book version of The Graveyard Book, I can see why it won.
This is a murder mystery from page 1, when through a twist of circumstance, a toddler escapes the fate of the rest of his family at the hands of the Man Jack, a knife-wielding murderer sent to exterminate the entire family.
Wandering out of the house and up the hill to the local graveyard in the dead of night turns out to be the one thing that saves the tot, as he is rescued and "adopted" by a couple of ghosts. They give him the name of Nobody (but generously call him Bod) and while the way the child ends up in the graveyard might be a stretch, it matters not. Because once the body is taken in, the story truly begins.
With the help of the mysterious Silas, the graveyard folks raise Bod as their own, and throughout the years Bod learns history from the long-time inhabitants, and even meets up with other humans. How all the stories intertwine is Gaiman's special brand of magic as we finally discover why Bod's original family was targeted, and Bod realizes his place in the world.
I was fortunate enough to listen to the author himself reading (performing) his work, which gave it an even richer dimension. There is most definitely darkness woven throughout this story (between the murder and the beasties and secrets of the graveyard), so it isn't for a timid younger reader. It's listed for 10 and up, and I would probably agree.
That said, the ending is full of hope and bittersweet self-discovery which in my opinion overshadows the dark setting. From a parents' perspective, The Graveyard Book is a glorious metaphor about raising children, knowing that ultimately they belong out in the world and not at your side. And so as an "important" Newbery book, it fits quite nicely.
This is one of the best books I've read this year, and I'm giving it a strong 4 1/2 bookmarks.