YA Book Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Fear Factor: Coraline’s chills tap primal emotions in all its audiences


Neil Gaiman. Coraline. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2002.


“The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring.”


Alice in Wonderland. Peter Pan. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Every so often, stories are written that relate so well with its audience thematically, emotionally, and personally in such fantastic ways that they become timeless tales that will resonate with their readers, young and old, for years to follow.

Add Coraline to that list of stories.

Neil Gaiman creatively crafted his 2002 Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Award-winning novella, Coraline, with this in mind. Told through the eyes of its titular heroine, Gaiman treats readers to whimsical overtones that breathe a strange but appropriately-satirical life into the story, with a sort of naïveté familiar to young readers and nostalgic to his older audiences, but entirely signature of his books, ranging from other child-oriented stories like 2009 Newbery Award-winning novel, The Graveyard Book, to stories spun for older readers, including Neverwhere and the equally-decorated Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Award-winning American Gods.

“I’m an explorer,” says Coraline, a curious eleven-year-old girl whose family moves into a boring old flat in a boring old house with some strange old neighbors. As a self-proclaimed explorer, Coraline’s wonderment, curiosity, caution, and skepticism resound throughout Gaiman’s thrilling narrative. Readers of all ages may find themselves nervous and uneasy with chills as they are engaged in Coraline’s fantastical adventure – from young adolescents and pre-adolescents who wonder about the world in the mist or the other side of the mirror, and to adults who remember longing to be somewhere over the rainbow. Gaiman’s straightforward but evocative style keeps its readers engaged and excited throughout, satisfying that desire to take a trip there and back again.

Coraline saves herself, her parents, and friends from the evils of another world that readers explorers along with Coraline, who learns through the story to be brave and how to conquer her fears and “beat the dragons”. Gaiman’s imaginative and mysterious, dangerous, and tempting world beyond the door-to-nowhere invokes readers to enter the world with its plucky protagonist (even if we should know better) because – like Coraline – readers will want to know more about what’s on the other side. Discovering the story’s vivid setting and diverse cast of characters provokes a sense of urgency to unravel the story’s mystery that will keep the pages turning from the first page to the last.

Coraline’s fairly simple language both makes it a very understandable and quick read with little ambiguity as to its meaning. This at once makes Coraline a fairly straightforward fantasy-horror novel while giving enough leeway to analytical readers for interpreting some of the potential social and cultural contexts beyond the story’s surface.


Recommendations for Teachers

Coraline is said to be for readers from ages 9 to 12, however some of the things that Coraline encounters in the “other” flat could be potentially frightening to readers at the lower end of that age range, and would be more appropriate for ages 11 and up. Though Coraline is most often shelved under juvenile literature, older students and even adults would enjoy it as well.

There are several themes and ideas in Coraline that would lend themselves to good discussion in the classroom. For example, Coraline says that “when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave” (59). A teacher might ask, “Do you agree with Coraline’s definition of bravery?” Or, “What do you think it means to be brave?” Another interesting discussion could center around names. Many of the adults Coraline talks to confuse her name, calling her “Caroline” instead. The cat she meets has no name and insists that cats do not need names: “You people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names” (37). Links to further discussion questions can be found under “Additional Resources” on this page.

A movie version of Coraline was released recently which follows the storyline of the book quite well; it is rated PG and so would be appropriate in any classroom. Viewing the movie in class (or possibly just watching a few clips, in the interest of time) could add to the discussion. Students could be asked to compare scenes from the book with those in the movie and answer questions such as “Why do you think they portrayed the scene that way?” Or, “Do you think changing this scene made it better?Coraline Graphic Novel by P. Craig Russell

One way to integrate Coraline into a somewhat more general Language Arts curriculum is to explore different methods of telling the story. For example, the teacher might mention or show the 2008 graphic novel in class. This idea can be adapted to a number of activities including dramatic interpretation and writing.

With writing as an example, students might be given a few pages out of the graphic novel adaptation and asked to rewrite the scene in narrative prose or a play script. Alternatively, scenes in the book and graphic novel could be compared and contrasted to show similarities and differences to promote class discussion and share thoughts as to why differences might exist and how a scene could otherwise have been interpreted. This could be done in reverse, as well, having students act out scenes, themselves, based on what they know about characters and how they would react to certain situations, or with pictures; and with the 2009 movie adaptation of Coraline, this type of exercise could also be done with scenes from the film.


About Neil Gaiman

Born in West Sussex, England in 1960, Neil Gaiman had been a ravenous reader at an early age, enjoying the works of such classic authors as C .S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ursula LeGuin – influences which would stay with him throughout his later writing career. After graduating from school (he attended several, including Ardingly College and Whitgift School), he began a career in journalism, specializing in book reviews, with a hope to learn more about successful authors so that he might one day publish his own book.

In 1984, Gaiman published his first book, Ghastly Beyond Belief, and has been a prolific writer even since. He also writes novels for adults, such as American Gods, as well as for children, like The Graveyard Book. Gaiman also writes comic books and graphic nove ls, like The Sandman. He has also written numerous works of short fiction, a number of screenplays, non-fiction, and has collaborated with other authors on various projects.

Gaiman likes to stay connected to his fan base by going on tour after each new book release. He updates his online journal at neilgaiman.com almost daily and frequently “tweets” on his Twitter.

Gaiman currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is engaged to musician Amanda Palmer.


Neil Gaiman’s Awards

Hugo Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – A Study in Emerald
  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book

Nebula Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – Coraline

World Fantasy Award:

  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book
  • 2009 – Odd and the Frost Giants
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2003 – October in the Chair
  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 1999 – Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar
  • 1994 – Troll Bridge
  • 1994 – Angels and Visitations
  • 1991 – Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett)
  • 1991 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with Charles Vess)

Bram Stoker Award:

  • 1993 – The Sandman
  • 1998 – Smoke and Mirrors
  • 1999 – The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
  • 2001 – American Gods
  • 2002 – Coraline
  • 2002 – Coraline
  • 2003 – The Wolves in the Walls
  • 2003 – The Sandman: Endless Nights

Locus Award:

  • 2002 – American Gods
  • 2003 – October in the Chair
  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – The Sandman: Endless Nights
  • 2004 – Closing Time
  • 2004 – A Study in Emerald
  • 2005 – Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys
  • 2007 – Fragile Things
  • 2007 – How to Talk to Girls at Parties
  • 2008 – The Witch’s Headstone
  • 2009 – Coraline (Graphic Novel Adaptation)
  • 2009 – The Graveyard Book

British Science Fiction Award:

  • 2003 – Coraline
  • 2004 – The Wolves in the Walls
  • British Fantasy Award:
  • 2005 – The Problem of Susan
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys
  • 2007 – Fragile Things

Geffen:

  • 2000 – Stardust
  • 2003 – American Gods
  • 2004 – Smoke and Mirrors
  • 2006 – Anansi Boys

International Horror Award:

  • 1994 – Angels and Visitations

Multimedia

Dreamworks animation studio released a 2009 film adaptation of Coraline, directed by Henry Selick (who also directed Tim Burton’s James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas). The film, though not entirely faithful to the book – with the introduction of new characters (such as Wybie), and much creative license taken – had very good critical reception and grossed over $121 million at the box office.

New York’s MCC Theatre has created a musical adaptation of Coraline, with music written and performed by Stephin Merritt. All of the music is played on piano, but in a unique form called a piano orchestra, which uses a few different kinds of pianos. This includes one known as a prepared piano: “a piano that has had its sound altered by attaching objects – such as tinfoil, rubber bands and playing cards”. The show ran a limited engagement until July 5th, 2009.

Interview with Neil Gaiman about his inspiration for Coraline and more.


Recommended Reads

  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Additional Resources and Further Reading

HarperCollins – Publishers Website – Publishers website on Coraline complete with discussion questions, brief introduction, biography on the author and illustrator. Contains links to various downloads and extras. Book Talk Guildlines/Review – Complete with summary, book talk, and recommendations for books like Coraline. If you click on “Guidelines”, it has an outline to a book discussion.
Official Movie Website – Interactive official movie website complete with trailer, map of the house, and information on the DVD, author, cast, and more! Neil Gaiman Interview on Coraline movie – Exclusive interview with Neil Gaiman on his take of the film. It has links to excerpts of the book, story of Coraline and the creation of her character.
Neil Gaiman’s Twitter – Find out what Neil Gaiman’s up to! Critics Statements and Author Awards – Shows awards that were won for the Coraline novel, and also some statements from Critics on the Coraline novel.
Coraline book reviews – Links to published book reviews by journalists. Neil Gaiman’s website – The author’s official website, complete with information about himself, Coraline, and his other works.
Wikipedia – Coraline – Gives the book’s plot and and descriptions of the main characters. Jezebel – Coraline’s Neil Gaiman Is “Nobody’s Bitch”
Coraline at the Internet Movie Database Dreamworks animation studio
Amanda Palmer’s website American Library Association’s 2009 Newbery Awards website
Horror Writers Association – Bram Stoker Awards The Nebula Awards
The Hugo Awards Music samples from the stage adaptation
MCC Theatre in New York City

Compiled by Grand Valley State University students Erin Riedel, Joe VanWagner, Leah Austin, Colleen Duffy, Janna Rozenkranz for YAReviews Wiki and Teaching Literature to Adolescents with Robert Rozema, February 2010

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