Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Dave McKean
The movie was amazing: beautiful, imaginative, and just this side of too scary for younger kids. If your children can make it through A Nightmare Before Christmas, they can make it through Coraline in theaters and enjoy themselves immensely. My two year old sat through the entire 100 minute showing and had a blast.
As someone who saw the movie first, I was filled with trepidation and excitement when I finally got my hands on the book. Of course, I’ve read his other YA work, The Graveyard Book, and you can read that review here. I was not overly impressed with it, although the premise itself was imaginative, so I was trying to keep an open mind while reading Coraline. Not necessary.
The book is killer. Coraline is a bored little girl of indeterminate (but young) age, who is tired of her boring parents and her boring life. She lives in a big house split up into multiple apartments. The fellow residents are always getting her name wrong, Caroline instead of Coraline, are really just no fun at all. The two old ladies downstairs are washed up stage actresses, and the weird man upstairs claims to be a mouse trainer, but Coraline thinks he’s lying. There is an empty apartment next to her parent‘s flat, and of course there is Coraline’s own home.
While trying to entertain herself one day, she finds a door in her living room that opens onto to a blank brick wall. Her mother tells her that it was walled up when the house was split into four separate flats, and leads to the empty apartment next door, but Coraline finds out differently. She is transported through the door into an alternate world, where her Other Mother and Other Father promise love her and give her whatever she desires. The only catch being, she must let them sew black buttons where her eyes are, and stay there on the other side of the door forever. The rest of the story is the quest for Coraline to rescue her kidnapped parents and herself from the horrible Other Mother.
Yeah, creepy as all get out. The story itself is scary enough, with the buttons for eyes, a very frightening scene where she is trapped in a basement with the Other Father on a rampage, and three very dead ghost children, not to mention the demonic Other Mother. But the illustrations by Dave McKean really put it over the top. They are asymmetrical and disturbing, showing melting features, a disembodied claw-like white hand, and other stylized images from the story. I was reading this late at night, and finally had to try and ignore the pictures while I read because they disturbed me so much.
Coraline is your typical child. There isn’t much special about her, other than a bigger than average dose of smarts, and this lends itself to helping the reader put themselves in her shoes. Any child could easily imagine finding a door into another world and having daring and exciting adventures there. It’s a classic meme, and one that Gaiman pulls off here with originality and style. The characters he writes are interesting and vivid, and the story is fast-paced and engaging.
From a feminist perspective, I give it two thumbs way up. Yes, the Other Mother is very much a cliché, but she harks back to the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales type of stepmother, rather than the Disney style. She is evil and extremely other, and in reality, I think she would portray herself as whatever her victim most wanted, be it a mother or a father or some other deep desire.
Coraline is her own savior. She accidentally gets herself in this mess by playing with something she shouldn’t have, and she uses her own smarts and gumption to get herself out of it. There is no white knight in this story. She proves that girls can and do have adventures and scary stuff happen to them, and that they are just as capable of taking care of it themselves. Yes! A Girl Hero! A Heroine, in fact!
Now, an interesting point. In the original book, from the descriptions, there are no characters of color. There are so few characters, however, that I don’t necessarily see that as a sticking point. She lives in a small town in England, in a small fourplex, and sometimes those places just aren’t diverse. But! In the movie adaptation, they add a character of color, a black boy named Wybee of Coraline‘s age.
And to me, this strikes me as an acknowledgement, either by the script writer and director, and/or perhaps Neil Gaiman himself, on the white washing of his story. It would have been perfectly logical (in some minds) to leave all the characters white when they moved it to the big screen. Wybee is there as a sounding board for Coraline‘s inner monologue, and I don’t feel he is stereotypical at all. He’s a sort of weird, nerdy kid that Coraline does come to care about very much by the end of the film. He even helps her beat the bad guy without taking the spotlight from her or becoming a black cliché.
His absence from the book makes the ending much, much scarier in my mind, because Coraline does all these brave, nerve-wracking things completely on her own.
I think I might have liked it better if I found he was in the original book, too, but we can’t have everything we want, and I think it was good that he was created for the film. Perhaps in the future, Gaiman will write stories from the perspective of all children of all colors. He seems to be an open-minded kind of guy. I think they did a great job of expanding the story to fill the big screen while still keeping true to the tone set by the author, and I will be buying it when it comes out on DVD.
I would definitely recommend this book to children over the age of, say, 7 or 8, and any adult. Be reminded, the pictures are scary, and so is the story, so use your best judgment on what your child can handle.
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