If you can’t tell at this point… if there’s anything I love more than a Neil Gaiman book, it’s probably a Neil Gaiman book illustrated by Dave McKean. Much of the time, the illustrations really complement the words, but in the case of Coraline and The Graveyard Book… I would argue that the illustrations make the books. With just the words… they’d probably be scary. But McKean’s illustrations (especially the ones found in Coraline) bring the scary parts to an entirely different level.
From his works with Gaiman (Mr Punch, Violent Cases, Sandman covers) to other comic writers (Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, various Hellblazer covers), or his own work (Cages, Celluloid), McKean’s varying style usually carries a level of wrongness that seems off, if not downright frightening.
Paired with Gaiman’s messed-up ideas and terror inducing prose… well, you’ve got a match made in heaven.
Neil Gaiman (illus. Dave McKean)
July 2, 2002
The best thing children’s literature can do is give children a mixture of excitement and a thought-provoking story. This isn’t to say that leisure reading isn’t important for children as well, but children should experience at least some challenge when they’re reading. And… that’s why I love these two books. Adventurous, exciting story-lines with important life lessons mixed in.
In addition to this, these are children’s novels in the classic sense of a Black Beauty or A Wrinkle in Time (or one of my favorite children’s authors John Bellairs) where the novel doesn’t shy away from the idea that bad things could happen. They don’t coddle kids, but present situations where child protagonists overcome overwhelming odds and have actual character development.
What a novel idea.
(ha ha, book puns)
Coraline, which celebrates its Tenth Anniversary later this year, has been popular enough to be a feature film and a comic book adaptation, from frequent Gaiman collaborator P Craig Russell. Beyond this, it has even entered the classroom and is being taught to school children. It also won the Hugo Award for Best Novella, the Bram Stoker Award for Best Work For Young Readers, and the Nebula Award for Best Novella.
Of course, popularity and awards mean nothing if it isn’t well-written, or interesting.
But it is!
Coraline Jones is a young girl beset by boredom. On a rainy day, she suffers to find something to do. Despite her parents working out of the home, they never have any time to spend with her. Her mother cooks out of packages, and her father cooks from recipes full of disgusting things. Worst of all… everyone and everything is so boring. Her mother won’t even let her buy colorful clothes for the coming school year.
Not to mention, none of the neighbors are able to get her name correct… how frustrating!
In response, she becomes an adventurer and explores around the house they live in. She starts in her own apartment, counting things and noting small details, including a locked room that leads to a walled-off hallway. Hm…
The next day, she leaves to visit the two women who live downstairs, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (from their descriptions, they seem to represent the archtypical crones from traditional mythology… but nice ones!).
As she leaves her apartment, she is stopped by the Crazy Old Man Upstairs (later revealed to be named Mr. Bobo) who tells of the mouse circus he’s training to play musical instruments. He also warns her that the mice have foretold of coming trouble, but Coraline ignores his advice.
When she arrives downstairs, the two women read Coraline’s tea leaves and warn her of coming danger as well. Because of the negative tea-reading, they provide her with a stone coin for protection (hello again, monomyth! So nice to see you again!) and send her on her way.
From there begins the next part of the monomyth, the travel into the unknown. After her parents disappear and the police are condescending, a stray black cat (the helper and the eventual mentor from the monomyth!) leads Coraline to the locked door and sends her down the new found hallway.
The hallway, without the brick wall, is exceptionally long (sorta reminiscient of the seven-and-a-half-minute hallway from House of Leaves) and leads to… Coraline’s own kitchen. Inside… is Coraline’s mother. And father. Oh, except they don’t look quite right… the main difference is the button-eyes sewn onto their faces. And the Other Mother’s creepy hands and hair. Creepy, creepy, creepy!
At this point… I’d be remiss to really carry on with the monomyth analyzation because… well, I’m just not prepared. Plus, at this point the book has some strong deviations from the Hero’s Journey and… it wouldn’t be fair to discuss it that way without a fuller period of research (some day, perhaps). And on top of all that… I didn’t intend for this to go in this direction… I just started noticing things and couldn’t stop… So… sorry!
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Dave McKean’s art at this point in the story. McKean’s art creates a creepy counterpoint to the words that the movie just didn’t capture, especially the Other Mother’s button-eyes, jutting chin, and creepy countenance that are showcased at the start of Chapter 3.
The breakdown of the Other Mother that occurs as Coraline continues to undermine the witch’s plans is particularly disturbing, especially the bumper image at the start of Chapter 9, which shows the Other Mother swallowing the key back to the other world.
Like I said at the start, though, the greatest joy I had when reading this book came from Gaiman’s unflinching attitude to creating a horror novel for children. As the epigraph from the incomparable G.K. Chesterton tells us, the most important part of any fantasy (or in his case, fairy tale) is not that the child learns that monsters are real… but instead that the dark creatures one meets in stories (and also in life) can be beaten.
Through her ingenuity, confidence, and intelligence, Coraline is able to overcome a frightening, terrifying situation and she even learns a lesson about how, sometimes at least, a little bit of boredom in one’s life can better than she thought.