When I was at the University of Chicago, I heard Neil Gaiman give a lecture. Afterwards, a little girl asked him a question during the Q&A. Her question was something along the lines of, “Which of your books would you want people to still be reading a hundred years from now?”
Gaiman was delighted because he said he’d never been asked that question before. He answered his children’s books, which included Coraline, which tells the story of a young girl who, unhappy with her parents, discovers an “other” mother and father on the other side of a mysterious tunnel. Coraline discovers a whole other world, in fact, which is far more interesting than her own. But she immediately senses something is wrong, and before she knows it, she’s embroiled in a battle with an ancient monster to save the restless souls of the monster’s prior victims, her parents, and herself.
I can see why Gaiman chose Coraline to be one of the books he’d most want to last. It has a tight plot, it’s written, and has the timeless aura of a fairy tale. But most importantly, anyone between the ages of 10 and 100 (maybe older) will have the kind of experience you normally associate with roller coasters. It’s fun in a way that allows kids to feel like grown-ups because the story is scary and grown-ups to feel like kids because it combines all the best elements of children’s literature.
How does Coraline accomplish all this? Because Neil Gaiman does something far too few authors have the guts to do.
He respects kids.
I’m quite late to the praise-Coraline-party (nearly two decades late, in fact). So the majority of people reading this already know what I mean. To those dozen or so people who haven’t read Coraline, Gaiman respects kids by writing a story that isn’t afraid to be scary. Not scary in a lame haunted house on Halloween way. No, this book is truly unsettling because it exudes the grotesque.
(By the way, I encourage you to check out Learning from the Screenplay’s podcast episode where they discussed Coraline and the concept of the grotesque. It was actually listening to this episode that inspired me to read the book)
What is the grotesque? There are undoubtedly technical definitions for words like grotesque, hideous, obscene, etc. but what we all intuitively know is that these words convey a sense of distortion. In Coraline, distortions are everywhere because nearly everyone and everything has a doppelganger. The differences are few, but disturbing, at first. Over time, the distortions grow ever greater, until we transition into the outright monstrous.
On one level, you could read the story as a tale about maturation or learning to appreciate what you have. You might read it as a story about the virtue of struggle as opposed to having what you want all the time. You might also read it as a kind of kid-version of Lovecraft.
I think all these readings would miss the point, partly because the book invites far more subtle interpretations. The copy I read belongs to a friend and her notes detail the way names, reflections, and identity itself work in the story. I find this far more satisfying than seeing it as a by-the-numbers fairy tale about growing up. That said one of the charms of the books is that the plot is so tight that you can see certain things coming. For instance, adult readers are likely to know what role certain objects or places will play long before Coraline does. Rather than making the story feel predictable, however, this only heightens the suspense and compels you to keep reading just a little longer.
My own stance is that, at least on your first reading, Coraline is best enjoyed for what it is – an adventure. Yes there are ghosts and monsters and magic items and things that, fittingly, resist names. But for all the elements of other types of stories Gaiman utilizes, this is a story about exploration, another theme that Coraline herself brings up more than once. In fact, you could argue exploring is the activity that Coraline defines herself by.
There are countless great books. But not all of them are fun. In fact, some supposedly great books seem constructed in such a convoluted way it’s like the author wanted to punish the reader.
Gaiman doesn’t want to punish anyone. He wants to offer you a story, and I guarantee you’ll love it.
So go read it. Now.
And remember to check out Matt’s Reading Recommendation Lists for more books you should immediately read!