Neil Gaiman is a master story teller. He has woven his craft in many forms; graphic novels and comic books, short stories and full length novels and even children’s books. Gaiman’s first foray into kiddie lit came in the form of The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. The similarities between this and his new children’s novel, Coraline, are too many to not take notice. Bored children, distracted parents, surreal surroundings and extraordinary circumstances prevail in both stories. And they are both, in essence, morality tales – the moral being, be grateful for what you have, for what you get in exchange might not be any better. The grass is not always greener, kiddies.
Our heroine, Coraline – not Caroline! – has just moved into a new apartment house with her parents. She becomes bored and lonely almost immediately. She fancies herself an explorer and goes out to discover what else lies around the house, in the garden, in the apartments of the strange people that share the multi-family dwelling with her family. During her exploration, Coraline discovers a door that leads only to a brick wall. Coraline, being an explorer and an adventurer and a bored little girl (and hearing strange scurrying noises in the dark of night) thinks there is more to it. The next time she opens the door, the brick wall is gone. There is a dark hallway. And thus her adventure down the proverbial rabbit hole begins.
On the other side of that hallway is Coraline’s “other” mother and father. They look like her parents, they almost act like her parents. It would seem they were her parents if not for the buttons that lay where their eyes should. And they seem to pay much more attention to her than her real parents do. Coraline lingers in this strange world, torn between liking the attention her other parents are giving her and fearing it. Soon the other parents start to look less like her own. The imposter mother becomes more frightening and threatening. Once Coraline escapes from the mother’s clutches, she realizes her real parents are missing. It is now her job to save them from the monsters on the other side of the hallway.
Along the way, Coraline meets up with comic-book like characters; the man upstairs who trains circus mice to play music, two old women, former actresses both, who read Coraline’s tea leaves and offer her protection in the form of a stone, and a mysterious, infuriating cat, reminiscent of the Chesire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.
The story moves like a maze, twisting and turning and you never know what lurks around each turn. What Gaiman does in this book is magnificent; he tells a skeleton of a story, leaving the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the flesh and bones.
While the novel is recommended for children 8 and up, it is parents that the morality tale may be intended for.
Coraline is a wonderful read-aloud book to enjoy with younger children (especially if you are one of those delightful grownups who likes to act out all the noises and voices in a story), and a perfect reading-with-a-nightlight-under-the-covers book for older kids.
Like Goldfish, Coraline is brilliantly illustrated by Dave McKean, whose black and white sketches bring haunting reality to the cast of characters.