“Staff Picks” from Horizon Books

Between May 2011 and June 2012, Mr. VanWagner was employed at (among several other places) Horizon Books in Traverse City, Michigan. Each month, bookstore employees are encouraged to recommend books to customers; these monthly staff picks are found at the front of the store and beneath each staff member’s bio on the Horizon Books website. The following are some of the reviews that Mr. VanWagner wrote (several are, sadly, missing; these recommendations are listed at the bottom).

There is a variety of ways to assume “appropriate reading levels” for books. Since these recommendations can vary a lot between sources – Lexile‘s framework for reading is a favorite, so I’ve included those measurements – based on studies, student samples, experience, the content of each individual book, and many other factors, information provided here in these respects will be limited. Age levels provided are only suggestions; it is advised that parents and teachers research these books as they feel necessary, especially for younger readers.

(Reviews listed newest to oldest.)


by Neil Gaiman

After helping a mysterious girl named Door he finds dying in the street, Richard Mayhew’s life – and world – are turned inside-out. People like his fiancee don’t recognize, remember, or even acknowledge him. With no life to return to, Richard follows Door into the shadow world of London Below – home to a strange menagerie of inhabitants from rat-speakers and scavengers to bounty hunters – to find out who killed Door’s family and is now after her. On the journey, Richard, Door, and their companions evade the vicious Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar and uncover a deep plot with as many twists and turns as the labyrinthine tunnels of  London Below.

  • Lexile Measure: 760L
  • Recommended: 13 and up

Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots

by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones

Just what is it about kids’ books with strange teachers, anyway? Though they seem to come by the boatload, Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots is a cool take on the creature-teacher subgenre.

When the new teacher, Mrs. Jeepers, lands in the third grade at Bailey School, the kids begin to wonder how they’ll survive the year. A great mix of tension and humor makes Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots (and the rest of the Bailey School Kids series, too!) a wonderful pick for young readers for the Halloween Holiday!

  • Lexile Measure: 600L
  • Recommended: 7 and up

Paper Towns

by John Green

Quentin “Q” Jacobsen has harbored an unrequited love for the mysterious Margo Roth Spiegelman for as long as he can remember, but he never would’ve imagined where she might take him. Appearing late one night, Margo drags Q on an all-night adventure – and then vanishes the next day. Q soon finds that Margo has left an elaborate trail of clues for him to follow, and on the way, Q discovers  things he never knew about Margo, his friends, and the rest of world around him.
Written by blogger, pop-culture fanatic, and technocrat John Green, Paper Towns is sure to pull readers in on an exciting and memorable journey!
  • Lexile Measure: 850L
  • Recommended: 13 and up

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King

Love to write? Thinking of dabbling in fiction, trying your hand at horror, or even penning your own memoir? Whether you’re struggling to put ideas on the page, or want a fresh take on an older piece of work – King fan or no – On Writing will help you to develop a mastery of the craft.

On Writing‘s uniqueness is that it doesn’t read like a drawn-out instruction manual the way many “How To Write” books often will, because On Writing isn’t your traditional English or Writing book. Part autobiography – in which King reveals much about his early life and career – part anecdotal advice – complete with tips on how to start your own writing process – and all-around entertaining, On Writing will keep you turning the pages and taking notes along the way.

  • Lexile Measure: 1110L
  • Recommended: 14 and up

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod – Book One – Eighth Grade Bites

by Heather Brewer

Another vampire book? In the midst of what seems like a recent oversaturation of “teen vampire” novels, Heather Brewer brings something new to the table by stirring up an old pot. In this first installment of the four-part Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, we’re introduced to Vlad as an Eighth-grader who just-so-happens to be a vampire. More fun and mystery than angst and heavy romance crowding this particular subgenre, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod is a series sure to please young adult boys and girls alike.

  • Lexile Measure: 780L
  • Recommended: 9 and up

Breakfast of Champions

by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions is an eccentrically-twisted jaunt through the late life – and descent into madness – of Dwayne Hoover, an auto dealer plagued by the writings of Kilgore Trout (Vonnegut’s recurring alter-ego throughout many novels); as Hoover spirals toward madness, we see how oddly he interacts with those around him and affects their lives. While a strange and humorous tale unfolds on the surface, Vonnegut is (perhaps not-so-subtly) using these vibrant characters to pitch his thoughts on the American way of life, from love and sex to war and peace. Surprisingly-relatable and uncannily funny, Breakfast of Champions is a great read for both die-hard Vonnegut fans and novices to his works!

  • Lexile Measure: 930L
  • Recommended: 17 and up

The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s unique, charming style (equal parts eerie and captivating, with a dash of goofiness) carries readers through his creative re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. A dark fantasy that’s more than simply any old retelling of another oldie-but-goodie classic, The Graveyard Book weaves the tale of young Bod, a boy who escapes the murder of his family and is raised by a host of ghosts and ghouls in a graveyard. Brought up living in a spooky landscape among the dead, Bod becomes ever more curious about the world of the living, wanting to venture out from the strange land of his childhood.

A wonderful read for children, teens, and – yes – even older folks, The Graveyard Book is a great October read that breathes fresh life (or unlife, as it were) into an old coming-of-age tale.

  • Lexile Measure: 820L
  • Recommended: 10 and up

Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History

by Bryn Barnard

Is this a kids’ book? Don’t be fooled by its size and cover – Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History is a great read for young scientists and older science buffs alike! This mini-volume of pop-science introduces microbes and the effects that they can have on humans, and chronicles the social and scientific effects of several plagues – including the Black Death, smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and influenza – throughout history, and explanations of how citizens and scientists still struggle with diseases today. Complete with beautiful and wonderfully-detailed pictures and paintings, Outbreak shows readers big science in a small binding!

  • Lexile Measure: 1080L
  • Recommended: 11 and up

by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series begins with A Game of Thrones, a gripping amalgam of intricate medieval-esque political drama between rival houses and gritty, darker fantasy. Fans of traditional, high-fantasy fare (from The Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time, and others) will note A Game of Thrones‘ departure from elements like elves and wanton wizardry, in favor of its aim towards an older readership and focus on characters and action over ambiance and setting, as we are introduced chapter-by-chapter to a diverse cast of characters with unique perspectives.

For a refreshing departure from formulaic sword-and-sorcery that is prominent in many familiar fantasy series, check out A Game of Thrones, then dive in to the rest of the series: A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and the latest installment, A Dance With Dragons!

  • Lexile Measure: (N/A)
  • Recommended: 18 and up

Other past monthly picks:


YA Book Review: Paper Towns by John Green

You will go to the paper towns and you will never come back.

John Green. Paper Towns. New York City: Dutton Books, 2008.

“Margo always loved mysteries. And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one,” (8).

Quentin “Q” Jacobsen has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman since they were little, growing up together in a subdivision in Orlando, Florida. By the time they enter high school, things between Q and Margo have changed dramatically; she has become “that girl”—the popular one, who sets the trends, who everyone wants to be, and around whom dozens of incredibly unbelievable stories are centered—unlike Q and his group of decidedly-unpopular friends. Q and Margo are no longer the friends they used to be, and, in Q’s point of view, Margo has changed. In reality, they have both changed. Everything has changed.

“Basically,” she said, “this is going to be the best night of your life.” (30)

One night, Margo shows up at Q’s window to take him on a series of wild adventures. Q is reluctant at first, but finally agrees, after some convincing, to embark on this journey with Margo. This is when Q begins to learn who Margo Roth Spiegelman really is. Their adventure together brings them both to the same level, which has not been true since they were children. This gives Q the idea that perhaps he has a chance with her, after all; however, he returns to school the next day to find that Margo is gone, and that she has left a series of seemingly-indecipherable clues behind. These clues were not meant for just for anybody; all the clues were directed towards Q. He begins to follow this trail in hopes that it will lead him to Margo, and with every new clue, he begins to realize that Margo Roth Spiegelman may not be the girl he thought she was.

“You see how fake it all is. It’s not even hard enough to be plastic. It’s a paper town.” (57)

The idea of a paper town is something new to Q, but it is this very idea of paper towns that would begin Q’s search for Margo. This “clue” left Q with many questions: What is a paper town, and what does it mean to Margo? These are the questions Q would have answers if he ever wants to find Margo, and these are the questions that inspire Q’s quest to find her. During Q’s journey, he learns much more about life, friends, family, and memories than his past 18 years of life could ever have taught him.

The town was paper, but the memories were not.” (227)

Read Paper Towns to see what Q finds!

Recommendations for Teachers

Paper Towns is easy reading and a fun mystery for all ages, but much of it rings most true with high-school-aged teens. After all, that’s who it’s about! Getting kids to talk about the books they are reading and reflecting productively can be difficult, however–even when they like the book. Here are some suggestions for teachers to use in integrating activities and writing, and promoting discussion on the book and some of the themes in it:

  • Characters: One interesting thing about the vibrant characters in Paper Towns is that they are all so multi-faceted. Students can pick any two characters from the novel and to write about how they are similar and how they are different.
  • Identifying with characters: “You’re you,” Radar says to Quentin at one point in the book. Who are you? Is there a character in the book that you, as a reader, can best identify with? As a follow-up, try having a character assigned, or picking a character with whom you might not think you would have something in common with. It may be quite a lot more than you think by the time you finish the book.
  • Building a mystery: Ever done it? Now’s your chance. Start with an ending point – the way Margo did – and build up to it. Think of what clues you might be able to drop for people to find and follow you to where you’ll wind up, and how they might follow them? Think about people you know as characters – how might these clues be read?
  • Sex, drugs, and alcohol?: Back to the characters of the story, now. Do you feel that this story reflects teenage life pretty accurately? Crazy drinking parties, allusions to drugs, and depression? Is everybody really ‘doing it’?
  • Genre: What is genre? What genre would you feel Paper Towns best fits into? Just fiction? What about mystery? Could it be fantasy? Discuss some elements of these different genres and discuss how the book might fit into one of these genres. How do you or students feel about labeling such a multi-faceted book as any one of these things?
  • Get into reading: Maybe Paper Towns is the first book that a student has read all year, or even their first in several years. What are some other books that you as a teacher, or other students, might recommend for those who liked it, or certain parts of it? Talk about what was cool or boring about the book and see what sorts of opinions you get. It could help to pick another book to read for class, or make some suggestions for the school library!
  • Omnictionary: By now, most teenagers with internet access and a curious mind will know about Wikipedia. Having read Paper Towns, they’ll know about John Green’s Wikipedia knock-off, “Omnictionary”, referenced throughout the book. Omnictionary is now a real website that functions similarly. You might encourage students to create pages for anything on Omnictionary, or to write entries about the people and places in Paper Towns.

Paper Towns would be useful in a unit about self-identity and perceptions of others. It is also an exciting mystery and might be best used paired with an Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher which like Paper Towns is full of relevant clues and has a link to a piece of literature within the text ( Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in Paper Towns and Roderick Usher’s library in Poe). Paper Towns also involves suicide ideation and the recreating of the self many teenagers are going through as they discover who they are and Fall of the House of Usher contains mental illness and the idea of resurrection. The novel mentions teenage sexual relations, drugs and underage drinking and would probably require a letter home.

Paper Towns is appropriate for 9th to 12th graders although it might be more appropriate for 11th and 12th graders. Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s blog Wild Geese Guide has some very useful discussion questions and the Rhode Island Teen Book Award website lists useful themes. Harper Collins’ Harper Collins’website has some great suggestions for discussion questions and activities Teaching Books.net has a wealth of teacher resources. The above links also lead to a load of great teacher resources, including books talks with the author.

About John Green

John Green was born on August 24, 1997 in Indianapolis, Indiana. During his childhood he lived in many places including Michigan, Alabama, Illinois, and Orlando, Florida, the setting for Paper Towns. In 2000, he graduated from Kenyon College with a double major in English and Religious Studies. He has written five novels to date including Looking for Alaska (2005), An Abundance of Katherines (2006), Paper Towns (2008), and a collaborative novel with David Levithan entitled Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010). In addition to these works, Green has also published several short stories, as well as reviews for The New York Times’ Book Review, and other writing for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and Chicago’s Public Radio Station WBEZ. His novels have won several awards including the Michael L. Printz award in 2006 for Looking for Alaska, the Edgar Award in 2009, and the Corine Literature Prize in 2010 both for Paper Towns. Many of his novels are being considered for movie adaptations, and most have spent time on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

John Green currently resides in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife, Sarah, their son, Henry, and his West Highland Terrier, Willy. John currently runs a vlog (video blog) with his brother Hank which was called Brotherhood 2.0 and is now known as Vlogbrothers. He has yet to set a release date for his newest project tenatively titled Everything is Surrounded by Water. More information on John Green can be found on his website.


Author John Green introduces his novel, Paper Towns.

Additional Resources


YA Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Discovering Personal Legends

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

The Alchemist tells the coming-of-age story of a shepherd boy named Santiago who spends his days leading his flock of sheep through the Spanish countryside. We later find that his parents wanted him to become a priest, for which he had even prepared himself. He instead decides that he wants to be a shepherd, and upon telling this to his parents that he wanted instead to become a shepherd, he is given their blessing and buys a flock of sheep, feeling that he has all he has ever wanted in life; soon after his introduction, however, he decides it may be time to marry, and falls in love with a wool merchant’s daughter. When he begins to have recurring dreams of hidden treasure near the Pyramids of Egypt, he cautiously begins to pursue it, coinciding with his dreams of one day traveling to far off lands and having exotic adventures. He hopes that his dream will come true one day, but does not view it as plausible or realistic. He understands that there is a purpose for everything and a reason behind the need to make decisions. Santiago’s strong belief that one should follow their heart is later reinforced throughout the story when he begins to forge his own “Personal Legend”. He values friendship and the prospects of a better life, learning to accept things that may come to pass.

Santiago’s world gets turned upside-down one day when a psychic tells him he must go to the Egyptian Pyramids to find a treasure. An eccentric old man claiming to be a king advises Santiago to take this journey to fulfill his “personal legend,” or destiny. Santiago’s journey to the pyramids spans the next few years, growing spiritually as he travels, learning from mistakes, while learning valuable lessons about the world, survival, and the lives and cultures of other people.

He encounters many characters on his journey towards fulfilling his Personal Legend, like the crystal merchant whom he asks for a job cleaning crystal – whom, at first, pays no mind. Santiago cleans the crystal anyway, asking only to be fed – an obligation the merchant fulfills and explains that it is one of five obligations of the Koran given to his people by the Prophet. The others are to believe in one God, pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, and to visit the holy city of Mecca; however, in spite of his desire to travel, the merchant believed that it was too late in his life for the pilgrimage, explaining that he was destined only to dream of visiting Mecca. Santiago later understands this in speaking with the alchemist, when it is explained to him that when a person goes for a long time without listening to their heart’s desires, their heart no longer desires things, and the man would instead be destined to dream of what could have been.

Another character, the Englishman, appears rude at first, to ignoring Santiago. He begins to speak to Santiago when he is surprised to discover that the boy possesses Urim and Thummim, the white and black rock crystals given to Santiago by the King of Salem. By coincidence, the Englishman shows Santiago that he, too, possesses the same stones, hinting at the idea that they may both be on the path to fulfilling their own Personal Legends. The Englishman allows Santiago to read his books on Alchemy, explaining the reason for alchemy and his interest in it as the key to discovering a “universal language” that all things could understand. Santiago also learns the importance of pursuing his dream from the Englishman when they reach the oasis and finally meet the alchemist who possesses the Philosopher’s Stone and Elixir of Life. Santiago is told to try what he always has, and to search for the answers where he had once failed. He accepts this and continues to practice alchemy.

When Santiago is caught by a scout in the desert, he uses his knowledge of alchemy and the alchemist’s wisdom to become the wind. This fulfillment of one’s personal legend recurs throughout the book as Santiago and others consider what do and would complete their lives – though in ways one might not expect. For Santiago, this becomes a quest for identity and self-realization, which leads him to find the greatest treasure of all.

“What a lovely story,” the alchemist thought.

Recommendations for Teachers

There are many themes in The Alchemist which can generate productive classroom discussion.

For one, many people have said that reading the Alchemist has changed their lives. But in the novel, the Alchemist says, “There is only one way to learn . . . it’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey,” (125). Students could discuss whether or not this means those people have missed the point of the book. This is a great way to get students to think critically about the best ways to foster their own learning. They can also discuss whether reading a book can be part of a Personal Legend and how reading influences people.

This lesson plan (Mrs. Koplik’s Alchemist Lesson Plan) from Ontario, Canada, has some wonderful post-reading activities such as “Write Santiago’s “How-To Find Your Treasure” Handbook, or “Personal Legends for Dummies” and “Make a Scrapbook (with explanatory notes) of Santiago’s travels—feature pictures and items which Santiago accumulates as he learns about life.” Koplik includes open-ended discussion questions such as, “Coelho states that ‘simple things are the most valuable and only wise people appreciate them.’ Produce a written or artistic response (or bring something to class) which depicts something that is ‘simple’ yet valuable to you. Be prepared to explain specifically why/ how the item is valuable.” Also included are many vocabulary words related to geography, religion, and other themes from the novel. Understanding these new words will help students better understand the story.

The Narcissus story in the prologue and the fable of the king, Melchizedek, relates to Santiago on pages 30-32 provide the opportunity to discuss the fables and legends. A teacher could introduce a class to the genres of fables and legends and discuss with the class how they influence the book.

NOTE: The book contains unconventional ideas concerning religion and how religion should be interpreted. Teachers should tread carefully when teaching in a religiously conservative area and explain that everyone is entitled to his or her own views regarding religion.

“The story has the comic charm, dramatic tension, and psychological intensity of a fairy tale, but it’s full of specific wisdom as well…A sweetly exotic tale for young and old alike.” – Publishers Weekly

About Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian native currently living in Rio de Janiero.

Throughout his life, Coelho had long-standing dreams of one day becoming a writer, but struggled for years working through jobs he found unfulfilling. He felt that his own personal legend (to use his book’s terminology) was to write.

Coelho briefly attended law school, but later decided against it as a career choice, choosing instead to travel across much of South and Central America, Europe, and Africa. After returning home, he spent two years as a popular songwriter.

According to Coelho, one of his life’s most defining moments was during his walk on the Road of Santiago de Compostela – spanning over five-hundred miles across northwestern Spain – he felt that he attained a spiritual awakening, or self-awareness, that he called “The Pilgrimage, a topic revisited in The Alchemist.

He is a firm believer in following one’s dreams, and that no matter what hardships a person might be confronted with, people will reach their goals if they believe in themselves. He published The Alchemist in Portuguese in 1988, and it has since sold over twenty million copies worldwide and has been translated into sixty-seven different languages. Paulo Coelho has won a number of awards for his books, and was awarded a Crystal Award for Artistic Achievement at the Davos Economic Forum Conference.


Coelho talks about connecting with literature during an interview at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. He reminds readers that books don’t change people’s lives—people change their own lives.

A fan-made trailer for The Alchemist.

Additional Resources

YA Book Review: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

A Year Down Yonder

Richard Peck. A Year Down Yonder. Broadway, New York: Scholastic, 2000.

A Year Down Yonder is an incredibly relatable story for young readers. Everybody, at some point in their lives, matures and deals with difficult people. Like other stories of its kind, A Year Down Yonder can serve to show readers of all ages how one can adjust to new settings, make new friends, and deal with many of life’s difficulties – be they personal, petty, big, or small.

Peck tells the story of young girl from Chicago named Mary Alice who, given the country’s lingering post-depression economic troubles, is forced to leave her home and parents to live with her grandmother – a crotchety old woman with a reputation for bucking the rules.

Mary Alice starts the first day at her new school on the wrong side of class bully, Mildred Burdick, who follows her home. Grandma, however, turns the tables and Mildred soon loses interest in stirring up trouble, which later comes in October, with the name August Fluke, who tries knocking down their privy. Grandma prevents his midnight stunt with a clever trap, and at the school Halloween party, Grandma dishes up home-baked pies that she made with stolen pumpkins and pecans.

Mary Alice and her Grandma’s adventures continue year-round, from the Armistice Day Turkey Shoot, where Grandma stirs things up by making the soup affordable, and the school Christmas Pageant, when Mary Alice is set up against the snobbish Carleen Lovejoy. Tricks and pranks abound when a new boy, Royce McNabb, arrives at school in time for Carleen to develop a Valentine’s Day, but not without Mary Alice and her friend Ina-Rae playing a prank on her to get even.

That same spring, Grandma takes in an artist to pay room and board, and Mary Alice develops her own affinity for Royce. Grandma plays match-maker, she and Mary Alice survive a tornado, and the year finishes up with Royce and Mary Alice promising to exchange letters while they’re apart.

The characters and the relationships that develop and evolve throughout A Year Down Yonder are realistic and relatable while still retaining the imaginative quality and historical relevance that makes the book such a wonderful escape from modern adolescent life – much the way that Mary Alice escapes her own familiar life by spending a year down yonder.

Recommendations for Teachers

A popular argument for the adoption of more recent books to be taught in schools certainly applies to A Year Down Yonder. The book offers fresh classroom (and out-of-the-classroom) material, in contrast to giving students what is considered “classic literature”. It’s nice to have a new voice in literature that has been published in the last decade; even if it’s historic, it’s still “new”, and not just the same stuff that our parents and the parents of our students – be they current or future – read themselves, when they were younger.

Much the way that A Year Down Yonder is an imaginative and engaging story, activities in the classroom can be, with numerous ways to teach English principles for reading and writing, as well as social studies topics.

Some ideas for activities and discussion:

Book-related activities:

  • Vocabulary: For example, “What are “vittles”?”
  • Vocabulary for slang/dialectic speech: “Gaggle”, “Slack-mouthed”…
  • Journaling: Have students keep a journal of what they think of the book, or keep a periodic journal of their own life similar to the book.
  • Perspective: Have students adopt different characters’ perspectives, and have them re-do a chapter or scene.
  • Writing the next chapter: What happens next?

Theme and topic discussions:

  • Family: Do grandma and Mary Alice get along?
  • Archetypes: How are characters from the book similar to characters from other books/stories?
  • Judging: How does the book reinforce the idea to not judge people based on preconceptions?
  • Romance: Is the romance in the story similar to other stories, or important to the rest of the story?
  • Introduction: Introduce the book by asking students what sorts of situations they have been in where they have had to adapt to a new place.

About Richard Peck

Richard Peck attended College in at DePauw University in Indiana and in England at the University of Exeter. No stranger to historic and philosophical material, Peck spent some time as a “ghost writer” for sermons as a pastor’s assistant and U.S. Army Chaplain in Stuttgart, Germany. Following his tour of duty, he became a High School English teacher, an experience which he credits towards inspiring much of his work and helping him decide to become a writer. Currently, he writes full-time and has over 30 published novels.

Ever the classicist, Peck writes all his books on a typewriter, saying of his refusal to adopt technology that “it has to be a book from the first day.” An avid traveler, Peck writes both from his own experience and experiences he hears about from his readers and people whom he meets.


Richard Peck talks about his writing and what makes a book “for young readers”.

Author Richard Peck talks about his writing and what makes a book “for young readers”.

Additional Resources

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


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

International Horror Award:

  • 1994 – Angels and Visitations


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

NMC Players: The Tragedy of Macbeth

In Spring 2008, NMC Players took on William Shakespeare‘s famous “Scottish Play”.

For this small production, there were several initial cuts made to the play’s original script, and a slew of oddities plagued its production (actors encountered several other strange – and deadly – occurrences shortly following performances, too; undoubtedly results of its notorious curse). Nonetheless, the students NMC‘s amateur acting troupe pulled together a solid production, building a core of enthusiasts who eventually continued with the program and spearheaded other college productions including The Crucible, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Once Upon a Mattress.

This performance of the play took place on April 12, 2008 on the upper stage in Scholar’s Hall at Northwestern Michigan College.

(Featuring Compendium creator, Mr. VanWagner, as Macbeth!)

The cast of “The Scottish Play”.

(NOTE: If a former cast member would like to contribute to this entry, please contact me!)