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An Indomitable Young Lady
on August 21, 2002
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.