As I continue my review series, I’m going to turn to a book this time. Considering the time of the month, I thought I would review one of the scariest books for kids (but also one of the best, hang with me folks that don’t much care for scary books!) I’ve ever read: Coraline, by Neil Gaiman.
Coraline is the name of a young girl who has just moved to a new apartment with her parents. She is good natured, opinionated, independent, and curious. Shortly after moving, she begins exploring both inside and outdoors, meeting her eccentric neighbors and discovering the grounds of the converted old house. What most interests her though is a locked, bricked up door at the back of her flat that would lead directly into another flat.
Although her overly busy and disinterested parents dismiss her curiosity, Coraline unlocks the door on her own one day and discovers that the door leads to a tunnel rather than the bricks that had formerly been there. After walking through the tunnel, Coraline discovers a new world just like the real world, only initially far more appealing thanks in no small part to her “Other Mother”, who pays much more attention to Coraline and seems to want her around, unlike her real mother. However, Coraline is quickly trapped in the “other world” and forced to rescue herself and her parents from the clutches of the evil other mother.
Gaiman suffuses Coraline with an understated eeriness. I was never outright disturbed by gore, frightening images, violence, or other hallmarks of the horror genre. On the contrary, there is a mysterious dread that builds throughout the novel, from Coraline’s unusual interactions with her neighbors in the real world through her climactic confrontation with the Other Mother. In my opinion, this is what makes the book scary, rather like a slowly building ghost story where the listener discovers that things are firstly a bit off, then moderately alarming, then horrifyingly wrong.
This is not the defining feature of Coraline though. For me, what makes the book great are the characters–Coraline is an extremely well-rounded character who cares deeply for her family, even if she doesn’t realize quite how much she cares for them until after she has to save them. She has a strong sense of justice for others as well, as demonstrated by her efforts to free others held captive by the Other Mother. Although those good qualities would be enough, Coraline’s most important traits are her courage, resourcefulness and ability to quickly out-think the Other Mother.
The strong world-building and fantastic characters (unfortunately, I don’t have room to talk in depth about any others) along with the remarkable and admirable quest Coraline embarks on make this a great book. However, I cannot deny that it is frightening, which makes me hesitate to recommend it. Gaiman himself commented on this in an interview with Gavin Grant:
“Adults completely love it and they tell me it gave them nightmares. They found it really scary and disturbing, and they’re not sure it’s a good book for kids, but they loved it. Reading audience number two are kids who read it as an adventure and they love it. They don’t get nightmares, and they don’t find it scary. I think part of that is that kids don’t realize how much trouble Coraline is in — she is in big trouble — and adults read it and think, ‘I know how much trouble you’re in.’
I think kids and adults are reading a different story, although they both happen to be the same book.”
I don’t know any children that have read Coraline, so I guess I have to trust Gaiman on this one. Take that quote as you will. When will I let Samuel read it? I don’t know yet. It’s such a great book that I know I want him to eventually, but I’ll just have to watch him grow and see when I think he’s ready for it. I think I have to recommend that adults read it for themselves–not only because no one can decide what is right for your child other than yourself, but also because it’s a worthwhile book to read even as an adult.