September 2002

Holli Mintzer

bookslut in training

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

When I was in elementary school (lo those seven years ago), there were a great many authors whose characters occupied my thoughts-- usually during math class or at some other time when books had to be tucked out of sight under my desk. I would cheerfully read anything with two covers and a lot of pages in the middle, but one book in particular thrilled me to the core. That was Matilda, Roald Dahl's story about a genuis of a little girl who outwits her horrible, igniorant parents and child-hating school headmaster. I loved Matilda Wormwood for a lot of reasons-- she loved to read, a quality I didn't see often in third grade; she was so smart she became telekinetic, which gave me hope that if I just read read enough I too could gain superpowers; she gave bad people their well-deserved comeuppance, and even third-grades like a good comeuppance. But most of all, Matilda was brave. She faced down the fearsome Trunchbull, came up with the novel idea of punishing her parents for their misdeeds, and even refused to let the Wormwoods take her away from the life she had made for herself. Compared to the heroines of other books I read at the time... well, there was no contest. Sure, most of the girls saw interesting things, but how brave were they? Alice stumbled from trippy situation to trippy situation, Ann of Green Gables was preoccupied by kindred spirits and muttonchop sleeves, and Maureen Beebee's brother Paul got to do all the cool stuff. Not much striking out in the face of adversity to be found.

This brings me to Neil Gaiman's Coraline, a story about a little girl who is inquisitive, inventive, and above all, brave. Coraline knows that "when you're scared but you still do it anyway, that's brave," which instantly won my favor. She has to outwit one of the most unsettling villains I've ever seen-- the button-eyed other mother, who traps children in a twisted reality and slowly drains them of life. The other mother is so determined to have Coraline for her own that she steals Coraline's parents, leaving Coraline no choice but to rescue them.

Gaiman creates a world for Coraline that is rich with detail and wonderfully spooky, from the crazy old man in the attic to the never-ending stage show of the other Misses Spink and Forcible. And Coraline herself is right up there with Matilda on my list of favorite characters, in large part because Coraline has to face something terribly frightening while knowing exactly how scary it is. That she faces it anyway, and triumphs in a way that nearly had me cheering, proves Coraline to be a memorable character who will, I hope, be with us for a long time.

I read Coraline to my seven-year-old sister, Lori, as soon as I had a chance, hoping to set her on the road towards bibliophilia at an early age. I was thrilled when she started reminding me of the chapter we were reading that night around lunchtime, and read by herself when I wasn't around. Surprisingly, she wasn't scared-- even though some scenes had me checking the closet before bedtime, and even though we read one of the most frightening chapters during a thunderstorm, with flashlights on standby in case the flickering lights went out for good. Lori loved Dave McKean's scratchy illustrations ("Is that the third marble?" "No, look closer..." "Oh! It's a key! Is it the key to the bricked-up door?" "Nope." "Keep reading, I wanna find out what it is.") and had lots of questions about absolutely everything. She thought the pages leading up to the other mother's defeat, when her house becomes crudely rendered and nearly two-dimensional, were (and I quote) "really cool."

Hopefully, when she has a few years between her and the book, Lori will love Coraline for slightly more complicated reasons than its coolness-- for its stark descriptions, its sense of otherworldliness, and above all for Coraline herself. Maybe she will recognize Coraline's bravery, and pass the story on to someone else who will love it too.


Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN: 0380977788
176 pages