A long time ago in another world known as my childhood, there were no such things as cable television, video games, home computers, or any of the incredibly wonderful diversions now at a child's disposal. Although I still managed to escape reality by entering virtual worlds of unparalleled beauty, staggering mystery, and nerve-wracking terror, it wasn't through the wizardry of technology that it was accomplished.
We had books of magic that would cast spells on us that would instantaneously transport us across years and worlds. One moment we would be sitting minding our own business under our blankets reading a book by flashlight, and the next we'd discover we were in the mysterious world of boarding schools and uniforms that made up the life of British school children.
But these children would always have the most amazing things happen to them. One group walked through a wardrobe in an old country manor and ended up in a fantastical land full of talking beasts, eternal snow, and a wicked witch. Or there was the young boy who, on his eleventh birthday, woke to discover that his whole world had changed and that he, along with many others across the rivers of time, was part of an ancient battle against the rising of the Dark.
There were also those children who never left our world but raced each other in sail boats around the lake lands of Southern England, or who acted for a young Elizabethan playwright, William Shakespeare, and fought on the losing side of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and watched their country fall under the dominion of the Normans.
(From last to first: The Hounds Of The King by Henry Treace; Cue For Treason by Geoffrey Treace; Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransom; The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper; and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.)
I'm sure others could add more to that list. I know I could, and when you read the work of J.K. Rowling you can see that we weren’t the only people who grew up with those stories being so much a part of the fabric of our universe. Is it any wonder that children have to fight their parents for the privilege of reading her books?
To my wonder and joy there is another author tapping that same vein and turning out gems of stories for both adults and children. Neil Gaiman isn't only responsible for the amazing Sandman graphic comic series, but has also produced some truly remarkable fiction and stories that stretch the boundaries of our worlds and borders of our imaginations the way few have done in years.
Coraline, first released in 2003, has now been reissued in a new edition with all the original illustrations and the text intact, and an interview with Neil Gaiman about the book and his notes on Coraline been added as appendices. (If this were a DVD I guess we'd refer to them as special features – even books make concessions to the modern era.)
The best children's books (which aren't really children's books but publishers have to call them something and adults don't like being thought of as people who will read stories about little girls, so they call stories like this a children's book) have a simple premise that leads to complications. They also end up teaching you something, but don't worry — you won't even notice it happening, so it won't taste bad or anything.
If the conventions of traditional stories are followed things are so much the better. I'm not normally a conventional type, but these are different in that they make the stories resound with the history of the type. How many other young women down the years have been unable to resist the locked door that sometimes goes nowhere and other times into another world?
This tradition has been sending a shiver of excitement and fear down spines for generations of readers, and when invoked creates an atmosphere immediately. Like all good archetypes it provokes the desired reaction among readers and allows the author to get to the meat of the story right away.
Coraline's family has moved into an old house that has been divided up into flats. Two of the other flats are occupied by strange people, the man in the top floor claims he is training mice to be an orchestra, while the elderly women who live in the flat beside Coraline and her parents had acted professionally when younger.
This being a modern story, some of the conventions have been updated to suit the needs of the time. Coraline's mother and father work at home doing something with computers all day long and don't have any time to spend with her. So she spends all her time alone, which isn't so bad because she likes to go exploring, and there is lots to explore in a big old mysterious house.
There are the gardens, which don't sound like any gardens I've ever known but always seem to accompany big old houses in England. It has an old well that's boarded over so nobody falls down, a tennis court in horrible repair, and a small forest. She has a great time exploring the garden until one day the weather turns bad and it rains buckets for hours.
Neither of her parents is able to play with her, her toys are just no fun any more, and she is bored. Even worse, her father made supper from a recipe that night and she just couldn't eat it. Things were not going as she would like them and her life is singularly lacking in entertainment value. Which is when, as if the idea just magically appeared, she thought of the mysterious door in the drawing room that opened on a brick wall.
After a great deal of persuasion she managed to get her mother to agree to open the door with an old black key that was kept on the top of the kitchen door framework. They went into the drawing room and with a great deal of difficulty, Coraline's mother turned the key in the lock and swung it back to reveal — bricks. The passage, or whatever it was, had been bricked in when the building had been divided up into apartments — or so Coraline's mother said.
Well, of course we know better than that (and if ever there was an excuse for an adventure to begin) — this is the door that leads seemingly nowhere. Everybody knows that behind those doors lie the scariest and most amazing adventures. Neil Gaiman and his story Coraline don't disappoint in the least.
Aside from being a masterful storyteller, he knows a story is all grown up and can take care of itself so he lets it get on with it while he takes care of the important bits — the important bits being those that dig into us and leave their hooks behind. Gaiman works with surgical precision and realizes all of a child's worst nightmares within the context of the story.
But as a balm to those wounds he also shows how a child, just a normal everyday child without any special powers, can be brave, even when scared. It's about leaving behind the selfishness of childhood and coming to understand what it really means to be loved and not just indulged.
Late childhood is a place full of fears and nightmares that we can only overcome on our own and by breaking through the boundaries that had previously defined our world as ending at the borders of our family. Realizing and accepting that new reality is what makes it possible to overcome the fears of childhood and move beyond them.
Coraline is a beautifully told and marvelously imagined story for all of us folk who hold a place in our hearts for the row houses and sooty bricked attics of the stories of our youth. Hopefully it will also introduce a new generation of readers into that world as well.
Coraline is another collaborative effort between Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. The two men seem to share a mind when it comes to the creation of atmosphere, and the simplicity that is required to accomplish that purpose effectively in this form. Having worked together on movies (Mirror Mask), graphic novels (The Sandman), and a variety of comic titles, it should come as no surprise that they breathe life into each other's work.
The prose of Mr. Gaiman brings the illustrations of Mr. McKean to life, while Mr. McKean brings the people of Mr. Gaiman's imagination to visual reality in such a convincing fashion that it is impossible to imagine any other faces or figures gracing the pages of their work.
In a fit of hyperbole the New York Times called Coraline "One of the most frightening books ever written," which is highly unfair flattery, as that sort of thing will only disappoint people and give them the wrong impression of what the book is truly like. This is a beautiful book with all the grace and style of a well executed drawing or choreographed dance. To simply call it a scary book diminishes the efforts of the writer and the illustrator.
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have created a new classic children's book along the lines of the books I remember with fondness from my own childhood. Even though there are moments that are frightening in this story, the main feeling that a child or adult reader will be left with is wonder. Which is how it should be whenever we finish a story.