“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~ Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton
This quote, which I’ve often seen attributed to G.K. Chesterton, is to be found at the beginning of the children’s novel Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. The sentiment is indeed Chesterton’s, but according to Neil himself,* the original quote is quite different. The words are Gaiman’s, and they are beautiful.
Our favourite childhood books teach us a lot about the world — how it is and how it is imagined and the little fantasies that help protect us from a vast and uncaring universe. Reading Coraline with that quote in mind, I could see what this book would have meant to me as a child, sometimes being so afraid (of comparatively inconsequential battles and hardships) and wondering how I was supposed to just … battle on anyway. Gaiman doesn’t offer a divine solution, but sometimes what you need to know is that some things you have to do, even though they’re hard. I think that would have meant a lot to my ten year old self. It means a lot to my twenty year old self.
Coraline, for those who don’t know, is the story of a girl who is bored and ignored in her house as an only child with busy parents. She is constantly called ‘Caroline’ by well-meaning and inattentive old neighbours. One might get the impression that not one person actually listens to a word Coraline says. The story changes into something out of a dream — or a nightmare — when the lonely child discovers a strange and twisted version of her home through a magical door, complete with strange and twisted versions of her parents. These ‘other’ parents pay her a great deal of attention and listen raptly when she speaks. This seductive and false ‘other’ world — where people have buttons for eyes and rats watch your every move — wishes to keep Coraline forever.
This plotline is very relatable for a child. When children don’t get what they want, they might wish that they had different parents. When they are ignored, it hurts. Her parents aren’t perfect. They do need to work, but their child needs attention, company, love. But they do love her, even if they aren’t always there, and she loves them. There is a huge emphasis on family connection, and such frank appraisals of loving but stilted family relations is ultimately very touching.
One thing I would worry about is that I, as a cowardly adult, was frightened by this book, though that may have been more a maternal, protective instinct than anything. But I would perhaps avoid giving this to very small or easily frightened children. Then again, fear builds character, so … you’d have to judge for yourself, there.
Coraline was a beautifully conceived, beautifully executed story full of suspense and wonder. It made me want to find my parents and give them a hug, and then find my little brother and tell him to not ever go outside — the world is dangerous.**
Highly recommended to all.
End note *WARNING SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE*:
I must confess that I saw the movie long before I read the book (scandalous!), which I usually try not to do. But there was one major difference between the book and its adaptation that cannot go unmentioned. In the book, there is no Wyborne. I don’t know if he was created for the purpose of the movie, or if he appeared in perhaps the graphic novel, but this had several effects: 1) Coraline was a kinder figure in the book, as we didn’t see her lashing out at another lonely child, 2) The resolution was a bit less … happy. She had learned to appreciate her life, but she was still alone — though this is perhaps more realistic. There are no convenient solutions, but simply a change in perspective, 3) The ending was scarier, because partners in crime make the suspense less suspenseful, and 4) Coraline herself was a little bit less fleshed out, through our limited knowledge of her interactions — we only ever really see her speak to adults, ghosts, cats and monsters. Not mundane, childish interactions. None of these differences are inherently good or bad, but it did create a notably different atmosphere in the story. But, having seen the movie first (though it was a while ago), I missed Wyborne.
* I find the phrase ‘Neil himself’ funny because I think his name on Twitter is @neilhimself. I think he actually mentioned the quote paraphrasing on Tumblr, though.
** This may be extreme — he’s 15.