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Coraline – Book Review

Coraline book cover art

Written by Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Dave McKean
Published by HarperCollins

Coraline Jones is a young lady who is very, very bored. Her family has just moved into a new flat and her mother and father have plenty of work to do that doesn’t involve keeping her entertained. Her new neighbors, two former actresses and the ringmaster of an all-mouse circus, seem interesting enough–but interactions with them can only take up so much time. In her explorations of her new surroundings, Coraline finds a door that doesn’t go anywhere. When the building, formerly a house, was converted into flats, they separated one half of the structure from the other with a brick wall–so this door opens onto brick. But one day the door opens on a corridor, one that leads to her other flat. And to her other parents, who want nothing more than to keep her entertained and well-fed…forever.

Many, many moons ago I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Gaiman do a reading of about the first third of this novel, which he introduced as a “spooky story for little girls”, and I never forgot Coraline or her button-eyed other parents…and how the entire thing creeped the hell out of me. And now that the rest of the story is known, I can say it was definitely worth the wait.

[ad#longpost]The reason this should be rightly considered an instant classic of children’s literature, modern or otherwise, is the same reason that Rowling‘s work on Harry Potter achieved its rightful acclaim: both authors have tapped into some of the Truths about childhood, albeit from different sides of the spectrum. Rowling tapped into the Childhood Uberfantasy: namely that the (boy/girl) is secretly a (protagonist in some grand hidden story/lost member of royalty from another hidden realm) and that at any moment, someone is going to show up, reveal their part to play, and whisk them off to wherever it is that part needs to be played. Gaiman taps into a similar, but no less important, notion, an Understanding, that all children have: namely that there is an undercurrent of malevolence in the world. All it takes is a step through the wrong door and it can be brought to the surface, where it must be Dealt With. A great place where this is discussed outright and in depth is Stephen King‘s It. Gaiman has this notion nailed so well that it’s not even funny.

What’s amazing about the book is how well a balancing act Gaiman pulls when dealing with this “other” world and how damn creepy it is. Because there’s just something so terribly Wrong about people with buttons for eyes, and you can’t rightly say exactly why this is the case–the only thing you can say is that your skin crawls all the same. But again, it’s that undercurrent–that just-below-the-surface–that makes this a perfect children’s book. Kids will get it and be able to deal with the idea of that “other” world probably a lot better than most adults. Kids can accept the notion of how Coraline can become a part of that world forever the same way they can accept that Hansel and Gretel are to be eaten. It’s the adults who start thinking of the details and shudder…hard.

All of that being said, the book is a marvel and is perfect for children of any age. Gaiman has succeeded admirably in what he set out to do: it’s a spooky story for anyone who’s ever been a child, and can remember eyeing random doors with equal parts caution and exhiliration. Highly recommended. Buy your copy here.

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