HarperCollins, July, 2002.
Hardcover, 176 pages.
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Raggedy Ann is a charming doll who is known for her honesty, helpfulness, her candy heart which says "I Love You," and her charming black shoe button eyes. You will never look at Raggedy Ann again in quite the same way after reading Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
Coraline tells the story of a little girl who moves into a new flat with her parents, who are nice but always a bit too busy. One day, Coraline opens a door she shouldn't and finds her way into an alternate reality. In this other flat, her parents are never too busy to play with her, but they do have these odd, black button eyes. Still, the toys are magical and the food is delicious. Coraline's other mother and other father shower Coraline with praise, and ask her to stay with them forever. The other mother whips out some black buttons and a needle and thread to indicate that Coraline must exchange her eyes for buttons in order to stay. Coraline refuses and returns to her flat…but her real parents are gone, imprisoned in the mirror by her other mother, along with other unfortunate children. Now Coraline must go back to the other mother's world in order to save her parents and the other children. With the help of a somewhat grumpy talking cat, she will do her best to outwit the monster with the shiny button eyes, the long white hands and the insatiable appetite for children's souls.
Neil Gaiman, who is best known for the novels Neverwhere and American Gods, and the Sandman graphic novels, delights in taking the myths and legends of our culture and exploring their darker side; in the process he shows us something interesting about ourselves and our society. He is an excellent and subtle storyteller. You may not realize the impact that his works have had upon you until later…when a door suddenly looks somewhat odd, and an icon of American childhood suddenly appears to have a strange gleam in her heretofore friendly and guileless black button eyes.
Coraline is a terrifying story for any parent to read. Gaiman plays to every parent's greatest fear: losing a child, and to every child's fear of losing her parents. And there is that other fear (barely hinted at) that perhaps the parents would be better off (or having more fun) without her. Adults who read Coraline will immediately shift into full-blown speculation mode: Who or what is the other mother? How long has she been kidnapping children? Where is this mirror world really located? And what in the world is the deal with the button eyes? Are the eyes the keeper of the souls? And so on. Children are more likely to take the story at face value as an exciting "heroine in danger" story. Coraline herself does seem to realize the danger she's in, but she's an adventurer and a practical child, and doesn't seem to find the circumstances near as terrifying as the reader does. She simply does what she needs to do to set things right. And she never believes the other mother when she tells Coraline that her parents would be having more fun without her. Adding to the atmosphere are the disturbingly appealing pen and ink illustrations by the talented Dave McKean.
Absorbing, entertaining and delightfully creepy, Coraline is even better when read for the second or third time. Just don't shelve it next to the Raggedy Ann books. Highly recommended.
--Claire E. White