Neil Gaiman has shown as admirable knack for fiction for young adults and children as he has shown in adult fiction. I am tempted to attribute this to his experience writing graphic stories, but it is really something more than that. It is an ability to touch the sources of wonder and fear without the necessity of excessive gore and grimness. Not that bad things don't happen in Gaiman's tales, but they tend to go right to the heart, instead of the stomach.
This tale is about a remarkable young woman named Coraline (who remains polite, even when you call her Caroline). Recently she and her parents have moved into one of those wondrous old houses that are sometimes converted into flats. Both Coraline's parents work at home, and sometimes she feels a bit ignored and bored. Nevertheless, she is encouraged to explore and so she does. First her neighbors. The Misses Spink and Forcible are two retired thespians who live together in the bottom flat, and up above is Mr. Bobo, who is an avid trainer of mice. Having run out of people, Coraline investigates the premises. Her flat is most unusual; it has 21 windows and 14 doors. Only one door is locked, and that only leads to a brick wall.
Well, most of the time it does. On some occasions, it opens up on a world just like this one, where Coraline finds her other mother, other father, and even other neighbors. At first it seems quite nice, people pay more attention to one there, the toys are better, and, of all things, the cat talks. Soon Coraline finds all is not quite as it seems. Everyone has buttons for eyes, her other mother has strange hands that seem to have a life of their own, and there are a remarkable number of rats. In fact, if you dig deep enough, things are really most horrible. Coraline has much to do to make things come around right.
With young people's fiction, adults are often driven to worry about what the stories teach and if they will have ill effects on their child. Coraline's plight, being stranded away from her parents amidst a world full of thinly veiled threats may be uncomfortable for a sensitive child. Yet things work out well in the end, and Coraline is an excellent role model, who understands what courage truly is and is in touch with what is really important to her. Equally, this is a work of art and it is never too early to encourage children to develop a sense of what good writing really is.
Fortunately, this really is a book that an adult can enjoy as well. And I can't help but think that it might stimulate some interesting family discussions. I would recommend it to anyone who believes that children can benefit from new and unusual reading experiences. I also should mention the delightful illustrations from the pen of Dave McKean, a long time designer and illustrator for Neil Gaiman's graphic work.
Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller. His diction is perfect. He does not waste words, but is not miserly with them either. His descriptions never fail to rouse a knowing nod and smile from the reader. Even when writing a quick throwaway piece in his journal...his style is impeccable.
For this novel, Neil sets his eyes on another audience: young adults. He gives children (or, as he has said, 'strange little girls of all ages and genders' - a nod to his friend Tori Amos and her 2001 "Strange Little Girls" album) a deliciously creepy novel about a girl, a new flat, and her other mother.
Coraline (not Caroline, even though all of the adults who live in the other flats keep on saying it that way and ignoring her corrections) and her parents move into a new home. One day, she pesters her father one too many times, so he sends her off on an expedition: find the water heater, count everything blue, count all the doors and windows. She does so, and is shocked to find that there are 13 doors that open and one that doesn't. She asks her mother what is behind the 14th door, and is told that it was bricked over when the house was broken up into flats. Her mother unlocks the door to show her this, but doesn't lock it again.
Later, Coraline creeps back, and finds that the door opens into another flat. It is just like her own, but not quite. In her room (green and pink, not boring like her own), she finds the sorts of clothing that she thinks she would have if she could pick out her own wardrobe -- not a grey school skirt, but costumes. In the kitchen, she finds her other parents -- not her real parents who work and don't play with her, but other parents who cook real food (not something from a "recipe" involving tarragon and butter beans) and dote upon her. Coraline knows that this is not right, and returns to her own flat.
Thus begins Coraline's adventure. The other mother steals Coraline's parents. Coraline returns to the other flat to get them back. Along the way, she makes friends with the most sarcastic of cats and finds the ghosts of other children who were stolen away by the other mother.
Gaiman's mastery of timing has never been shown so well than in this novel. Just when things are getting really scary, he breaks in with a droll and dry line that makes the reader laugh. This is a novel that is just begging to be read aloud -- as Neil Gaiman himself did on 02 July 2002 in Berkeley, California. His audience, around 500 people, hung on his every word. The adults in the audience were just as delighted as the children to have someone read such a delicious story to them. If you dislike reading aloud, you can always buy the audio CD (complete, unabridged) version of this story.
on June 18, 2002
I received the audio CD of Coraline in the mail yesterday in the early afternoon. I'd read the book, and heard parts of it read by the author here and there, so I put it on for background, while I did other things. The "other things" didn't even get started for roughly three hours.
The recording begins with a verse from a quirky Gothic Archies tune in which Stephin Merritt sing-songs, "You are not my mother, and I want to go home," over layers of atmospheric dings and bonga-bongas. The song echoes the story's cohesion of humor and spookiness, and is split into three parts, playing a bit before each of the three CDs.
The story itself is a delight. Coraline is a typical child-explorer, examining the house and grounds to which she recently moved, uncovering the strange personalities that inhabit her world, and discovering that a door in her home which was previously bricked-up actually leads to a misty echo-world where old, hungry, button-eyed creatures masquerade as her other parents, having parent-napped her real parents, while trying to convince her to stay there forever so that they can keep her soul . . . Well. Perhaps her story is not so typical. Not typical, also, are the fantastic characters who pop in and out of the story, such as the Slavic mustached man who lives in the upper flat and is training a mouse circus, and his other-self, or the pair of dotty, but kind, retired theater mavens who read tea leaves and worry about their dogs' tummies, and their less-benevolent, other-world counterparts. Like any true exploration story, Coraline has an assistant for the more dangerous times, in the form of a condescending, snarkily witty black cat. And like every true exploration story, there are acts of great courage and startling discoveries made along the way.
Neil Gaiman is an engaging and expressive reader, as well as writer. He infuses the characters with a spark all their own, changing cadences and even accents, always to the benefit of the story. The pacing is smooth and quick, with minute dips and well-placed pauses that give the shivers a chance to manifest before the story is once again plunging on to the good stuff.
Coraline is a story that begs -- no, demands -- to be read aloud. Usually the problem is that someone has to be the reader, while the listeners get to experience the full effect and thrill of the story. Let the author be the reader, and indulge yourself in the sheer delight of hearing a wonderful story told well.
Young Coraline isn't all that happy with her life. Her parents work too much and, as young children are wont to be, she's bored. But when she discovers her alternate life behind a hidden door, she begins to think that her real life isn't so bad. Evil lurks behind every corner as Coraline tries desperately to regain her "old" life.
Advertised for ages eight and up, Coraline is, for all intents and purposes, a horror book for kids. Scary, but without the gore.
And although I haven't interviewed any eight year olds on the matter, I suspect Gaiman largely succeeds in scaring the pee out of them. The alternate world Coraline stumbles into strangely mirrors her own, containing another set of parents who, despite their outward declarations of love and devotion, don't seem quite right. (Black buttons instead of eyes are a pretty big clue here.)
The alternate world Gaiman creates is quite well thought-out. And while the themes of the novella may not be original, the conveyance of it certainly is.
As rich as the plot is, however, there is something lacking in Coraline. We know she is a kind girl and even quite a smart girl. But that's about all we ever get to know. Ultimately, she's rather one-dimensional in a cardboard cutout sort of way. Perhaps this was by design, but I missed getting to know Coraline.
Hmmmmm. Here's the brutal truth: the thrill just wasn't happening for me. By no means is this an awful book. It won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, and the Bram Stroker Award.
I read it. I didn't hate it. But neither am I running out and buying copies for every kid I know. Maybe I missed something. It's been known to happen.
I do, however, have high hopes for the forthcoming film version.
on July 6, 2002
There once was a young girl named Coraline who moved into a new flat with her mother and father. The neighbors are friendly, if not a bit odd and a bit confused, repeatedly calling her "Caroline" by mistake. The little girl is a self-proclaimed explorer, taking walks around the neighborhood no matter what the weather. With both of her parents occupied by work, she counts the doors at home, and figures out how to open up a door which is supposed to open up to nowhere - more specifically, a brick wall...
Coraline's curious nature is akin to that of Alice (in Wonderland), Anne (of Green Gables) and other historical young heroines. Far from being a damsel in distress, Coraline is witty, intelligent and aware. Her 'White Rabbit' comes in the shape of a black cat who has no name; as he wryly explains to her, cats know who they are so they don't need names, unlike insecure human beings.
"Coraline" is a fantastic read for all ages, genders and critters. This is a book to read late at night when huddled under the covers with a flashlight. The gothic feel of this book will please long-time Neil Gaiman fans as well as fans of classic dark fairy tales.
on May 27, 2003
This book is said to be written for children. And while the reading level is probably that of a child, the content most definitely is not. Remember, this is Neil Gaiman we're talking about here. The creator of Neverwhere and the Sandman graphic novels is not about to tone down the creepy factor just because he's writing for kids. The only thing missing from this book that would make it for older readers is the violence and language that is commonplace in Gaiman's books for adults.
Anyway, the plot: Young Coraline Jones has just moved into an apartment filled with strange old people. So, for lack of anything else to do, she starts exploring her new home. What she finds is a door in her family's drawing room, a door that leads to an alternate world. In this strange new place, Coraline meets her Other Mother and Other father, who look just like her real parents, except that they have buttons for eyes. Coraline's Other Mother would like nothing better than to have Coraline for her own child. So, she kidnaps the real parents and hides them. With the help of a black cat, Coraline must rescue her real parents, as well as the souls of several other children that the Other Mother has stolen, all while trying to get home in one piece.
This book is written with a slow, deliberate voice that is almost childlike, which makes the story seem even creepier. The scary moments of the book (and there are many of them) are not so much nasty or terrifying as they are odd and unexpected. If you are a true Gaiman afficionado, Coraline feels like a toned-down version of the author's even weirder graphic novel "The comical tragedy or tragical comedy of Mr. Punch". If you aren't a Gaiman fan, or even if you haven't read any of his books, this is definitely a good book to get started on, since it gives you sort of a feel for his other books. If you like Coraline, it's likely you'll enjoy Gaiman's other novels as well. If you don't...Well, then I suppose you can always go to Stephen King for your horror fix.
on November 5, 2006
About halfway through Coraline I began to get the feeling that I wasn't reading a book, but that instead I was watching someone play a computer game where little Coraline goes about doing things - opening doors, chasing rats, dodging human-like grub creatures - in a well-imagined and creepy world. A lot of things happen in the book; Coraline collects items, she explores rooms, she must listen to others for the proper clues... and yet there are only a few moments when I thought "This is an actual little girl", a real person as opposed to a small figure who simply does things.
I suppose in large part the "computer game" feeling stemmed from the abundance of action combined with a near absence of inner conflict. For instance the book would have been so much more interesting if Coraline had gone to this "other world" and not immediately seen how horrible it was. Because even when she first meets her "other mother" and "other father", and they serve her a delicious meal that her real parents would never have the time and ability to make, there's still a lot she finds creepy and off-putting from the start - her other parents' hungry black button eyes, and the menacing whispering rats, among other things. So even if her other parents do describe to her a kind of kid's paradise where they'll play with her each day, all day, and give her all the attention that her real scatter-brained parents often don't, Coraline is never truly tempted to stay. The existence of such a temptation would have made the drama so much more compelling; it would have involved making this "other world" not so completely creepy from the start, and making the lure much more subtle.
Inner conflict was also absent from many of Coraline's decisions. There are moments when she must call upon her bravery (and no wonder, given the things she must face), but each time she does so it's done without any apparent effort or struggle. Her heart beats, yes, and her palms might sweat, but she pulls through each and every time. I wanted her to be more human, to react more like a child would, to summon bravery only after failing to do so a few times. I wanted to see more failure and false starts; she does, after all, wind up playing a high-stakes game against a rather terrible and devious creature. The moments of cleverness and courage and wisdom would have meant so much more had they been earned rather than bestowed as automatic gifts from the author.
There was only one occasion when I felt truly convinced that this was a little girl shoring herself up with strength. It's when Coraline is about to enter the other world a second time, in search of her real parents, and she reminds herself of the time she and her real father went exploring a gully, where they accidentally stepped on a wasps' nest. She recalls how her father told her to run ahead up the hill, and how he stayed behind and got stung numerous times, just to give her a chance to escape first. The description of that one episode - and Coraline's reflections on it - were so genuine and wonderfully written that I felt the lack of that kind of writing in the rest of the book.
Gaiman is strongest in his creation of this other world with its strange distorted creatures and creepy atmosphere. Sometimes the creepiness isn't even from obvious things, but more from little gestures, like when Coraline returns from visiting her "other neighbors" and immediately finds her other parents waiting for her outside, arm in arm, staring at her with those black button eyes; they're not doing anything obviously menacing at this point, but the very image raises goosebumps. I think if Gaiman had coupled his imaginative inventions with more psychological struggle and truth, the book would have been truly absorbing and even more frightening.
on January 1, 2003
Coraline by Neil Gaiman. 2002 by Harper Collins. 1st Edition, later impression.
Gaiman's 1st `novel for all ages' (from flap of DJ)is also rated for ages 8 and up. It's illustrated by Dave McKean, who collaborated, with Gaiman, on `The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish'.
This is a spooky story of a small girl's adventure into a mirror world that is strangely, scarily warped. White-skinned, button-eyed `people' (like Coraline's `other mother' and `other father'), cats and rats that talk, lost children's souls, and a missing mother and father all combine to test Coraline's bravery and wits. In this twisted `other' world, Coraline must rescue her parents, the souls of the 3 lost children, and herself using only her courage and cunning.
A very entertaining read, which I consumed in an afternoon of quiet time; but spooky enough that I'm not sure I would expose many 8-year olds I know to it!
There was the occasional sentence or dialog that would have benefited from closer, more thorough editing. But other than that rare distraction, this book reads very well, in a Fairy Tale cadence, is spooky enough to make you skin crawl, and, at times, you may even jump with a little startle.
Enjoy it. It's a fun read, and is written to be read aloud to your kids, niece or nephew. Read it to your grandchildren, then send them home to their parents. That's always fun! But be prepared to have company in your bedroom or even your bed that night!
Nobody can drench a book in creepy, dank atmosphere like Neil Gaiman -- and it doesn't matter if it's a kid's book.
And "Coraline" -- now being released as a movie -- is no exception to Gaiman's track record. It's a haunting little dark fairy tale full of decayed apartments, dancing rats and eerie soulless doppelgangers, as well as a gutsy heroine who finds herself in this ominous "other" world.
Newly moved into an aged apartment, Coraline (not "Caroline" is bored. Her parents are too busy to do anything with her, and her neighbors are either insane or boring.
It's the sort of relentlessly dull world that any little girl would want to escape from -- until Coraline does. She encounters a formerly bricked-up door that leads into an apartment in another world, which looks eerily like her own. In fact, it's so similar that she has a taloned, button-eyed "other mother" and matching "other father," as well as a chorus of singing, dancing rats and magical toys.
At first Coraline is fascinated by the other world, especially since her other parents are very attentive. Then she finds her real parents sealed inside a mirror. With the help of a sarcastic cat, Coraline ventures back into the other world. But with her parents and a trio of dead children held hostage, Coraline's only hope is to gamble with her own freedom -- and she'll be trapped forever if she fails.
Without Neil Gaiman's touch, "Coraline" would just be another story about a kid who learns to appreciate her parents. But he infuses this story with a dark fairy-tale vibe -- decayed apartments, dead children in a mirror, beetles, disembodied hands, monsters that cling to the wall with souls in their grip, and rats that sing about how "we were here before you rose, we will be here when you fall."
That dark, cobwebby atmosphere clings to the increasingly nightmarish plot, as Coraline navigates a world where the other mother has every advantage. And Gaiman's wordcraft is exquisitely horrible -- the other mother's hands are compared to spiders, her hair to undersea tentacles. And the fate of the other father is a magnificently ghastly thing.
He even infuses poetry into the horror ("A husk you'll be, a wisp you'll be, and a thing no more than a dream on waking, or a memory of something forgotten"), and a fair amount of macabre humour ("I swear it on my own mother's grave." "Does she have a grave?" "Oh yes. I put her in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back").
Coraline herself is a wonderful little heroine -- strong, sensible, self-sufficient but still fairly freaked out about what is happening around her. The sarcastic cat is a wonderful counterpoint. And the other mother is the stuff of nightmares -- she's utterly inhuman and merciless -- who "wants something to love. Something that isn't her. She might want something to eat as well."
Neil Gaiman creates eerie, slightly warped worlds like nobody else, and he does an exquisitely horrible job in "Coraline." Just never go through the door.
Coraline is bored. Her parents work more than she'd like them too, her clothes are dull, her new home is boring, and the neighbors, though interesting, aren't entertaining enough to hold her interest for long. Eventually she finds her way through a bricked-over doorway into a new world. She meets her kind-but-creepy "Other Parents," enjoys a delicious meal, talks with cats and rats, and plays with new, marvelous toys. Still, she decides to go back to her real parents and her real life. Her "Other Mother," however, has different plans for Coraline.
Coraline is a fun and haunting read. I particularly enjoyed the character of Coraline herself - she lacks the supreme self-possession displayed by the protagonists of many other children's books. Sometimes she's a very brave little girl, and at other times she's just a little girl, preoccupied with neon green gloves and boots shaped like frogs.
The book has some genuinely creepy moments in it, and may be too scary for younger children. The "Other Mother" in particular, as she increasingly reveals her true self, can be quite frightening. The disconcerting prospect of having buttons sewn on where one's eyes used to be is another unpleasantness that lingered in my mind's eye long after I'd finished the book.