Fairy Tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
--G. K. Chesterton, used by Gaiman as an epigram for Coraline
Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.
--opening sentence, page one.
A little girl, frustrated with her mundane existence, walks through a mysterious door and into an alternate version of her house, where things are more than slightly askew. Her grotesque "other" mother who lives there has buttons for eyes, and wants to sew similar ones onto Coraline and keep the child there forever. And that's just the start; this mysterious woman has far more monstrous secrets. She has kidnapped Coraline's parents, and her closet contains the souls of other lost children who have fallen into her spidery clutches. With the help of a talking cat, Coraline must outwit one of the most diabolical villains in the history of children's literature.
Neil Gaiman wrote this novella for his children-- in particular, his daughter Holly, whom he calls "the kind of kid who makes Wednesday Addams look cheerful" (quoted in Mahtadie). Doubtless they loved it. Doubtless other, older children will, too. But, for a young person's book, Coraline is surprisingly macabre and frightening. Granted, older fairy tales were often pretty grim; we're no longer used to children's stories being quite so creepy. Consequently, not all parents will find this suitable for their wee ones. And never mind the children; the fate of the villain's creations and the plottings of her severed hand will haunt any number of adult readers.
Personally, I like the fact that Gaiman doesn't soften the book too much, despite his audience. Coraline faces a seductively deceptive and ultimately very nasty adversary. Most Walt Disney villains would recoil from this creature in horror. A particularly clever young girl, however, proves more than her equal. This fact will obviously appeal to children.
The protagonist of many a children's book has a whimsical sidekick to help out. Gaiman has given Coraline a talking cat who retains the essential nature of a feline. Tiny animals get pounced upon; a rat gets decapitated. And when the going gets tough, it starts eyeing the exits. Children already know these things about cats, if they know a cat. They also know, or ought to be made aware, that nasty people exist in the world, and these people often appear quite appealing at first. I prefer Gaiman's approach of including essentially accurate, faerie equivalents of such things to the approach of many turn-of-the-millennium children's movies, which soften the moral edges, and pander to their audience with, say, an effluence of fart jokes.
While I don't share Diana Wynne Jones' much-quoted opinion that Coraline will replace Alice in Wonderland, this book ranks among the best children's stories I've read. It recalls Roald Dahl, and Gaiman's effort is at least as good as any of Dahl's. The book also boasts illustrations by David McKean, which resemble the pictures found in many older children's books.
Gaiman has written novels, teleplays, short stories, poetry, and comics, and he has impressed audiences of each genre. It's not surprising that he should do equally well with a children's novella. In 2003, Coraline won the Hugo for Best Novella and the Locus for Best Young Adult Novel.
Neil Gaiman. Coraline. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Luma Mahtadie. "Not just another comic book hero," The Globe and Mail. Sept. 4, 2003. R3.
Portions of this node appear in my review of Coraline at http://www.Bureau42.com.