Coraline by Neil Gaiman, pictures by Dave McKean, 162 pp RL4
I read Coraline by Neil Gaiman in 2002 when it was first published it and it did not leave a deep impression on me. In all fairness, while I loved ghost stories as a child, scary stories are not my preferred genre. It took reading and listening to the phenomenal The Graveyard Book, sublimely narrated by Neil Gaiman, to nudge me to give it another try. I thought I'd make a week of it and read and review Stardust, which was originally published as a graphic novel with beautiful artwork by Charles Vess, but I am finding there are one too many racy bits (that are not in the movie, in case you would like to watch it with your kids) to make it appropriate for young readers.
Coraline has been compared to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, much as similarities to The Graveyard Book and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book have been noted, and this is accurate to a degree. Like Alice, Coraline is bored when her adventure begins. And, like Alice, a talking animal, in this case, a black cat who proves to be her secret weapon in the end, guides her through a magic portal between words into Wonderland, or Horrorland, in Gaiman's case. If you do not already know this about Gaiman, his preferred genre is, to be completely simplistic, scary stories. Spooky, creepy, compelling, grotesque, ghostly, malevolent and maybe even fantasmagoric are adjectives that can be ascribed to his work. Coraline abounds with various odors, dark, dank spaces, rats, mice and gelatinous, maggoty, pod like things that must be poked and prodded by the heroine. There is also the Stepford-like "other mother" with big, shiny black button eyes who gradually transforms from a being resembling Coraline's mother to a beetle-eating, snake haired, spiky nailed, soul stealing wraith who is often referred to as "the beldam." But, at its heart, Coraline is, like all other children's stories, a book about overcoming fear and confronting something larger than yourself.
During summer break, Coraline and her family move into an old apartment building that was once a house and has now been divided up in curious ways. Her upstairs neighbor is a man from an unnamed foreign country who is training a mouse circus which he will not let anyone see. All the songs he has written go "oompah oompah" and the mice will only play "toodle oodle." Below Coraline live the round and aging Miss Spink and Miss Forcible and several Highland terriers with names like Andrew, Hamish and Jock. Although Coraline introduces herself to her neighbors over the course of several visits, all of them continually refer to her as "Caroline" instead of Coraline in an ominous portend of the alternate reality that is on the verge of taking over.
One day while exploring her flat, Coraline enters the drawing room, which is furnished sparsely with uncomfortable old furniture inherited from a grandmother, Coraline discovers a locked door. Her mother gamely opens it to reveal a brick wall that now serves as a boundary between apartments. After a few odd happenings and omens in the form of tea leaves and rat songs, Coraline finds the door unlocked and enters, passing through a dark hallway into an apartment that mirrors her own. There she finds her other mother and other father who, unlike her real parents, are waiting to play with her and fix her foods that agree with her picky palette. Coraline returns home safely after this first visit, excited by this happening in her boring life. However, things change quickly. Corline's parents disappear and she is forced to make another trip through the tunnel to the other world where menace and danger have begun to creep in at the edges. In an effort to escape this alternate world and find absent her parents, Coraline suggests a hide-and-seek game through the landscape of the other world that could cost her her life. But, if she wins she will save herself, her parents and the souls of three other victims of the Other Mother, who Gaiman sometimes refers to as the beldam, which is a word for an old woman who is believed to be evil. And, like a scary story, it's not over when you think it's over. But, perhaps because this is a children's book, Gaiman does not shock his readers with the reappearance of the beldam. Coraline is warned of this in a dream where she shares a delightful picnic in a meadow with the three souls she has freed, one of whom turns out to be a fairy. After thanking her for releasing them they warn her that the beldam will not let her go and she should be prepared for another fight. In a perfectly childlike, determined manner, Coraline sets a trap for the beldam and finds she is able to return to her boring life, which she now appreciates, and embark on a new term at a new school without any anxieties. After all, what could be scarier than what she's just been through?
The existance of an "other world" allows Gaiman to create some eerily familar creepy crawlies that, while weird and dark are never too terribly scary. Of course any parent who has a sensitive child will not give her or him this book to read. But, if your child has a healthy fascination with skeletons, ghosts, slugs and the like, this book will be a great treat. The brilliant Henry Selick, director of Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach has made a wonderful, spot on movie of Gaiman's book. The Coraline movie website is almost as good as the movie itself. But, don't check out the website or movie if you want to read Coraline and visualize the setting and characters with your own imagination. Selick does such an amazing job of bringing the world of Gaiman's book to life that you will never see the book any other way once you have seen his version of it...
For those of you wondering if the movie Coraline (or the book, or any book for that matter) might be right/age appropriate for your child, Neil Gaiman has the perfect, succinct, response to this question in a post on his online journal titled Is Coraline right for (insert age here)?.