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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

01/11/2010. Contributed by Izzy Kaminski

Buy Coraline in the USA - or Buy Coraline in the UK

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pub: Bloomsbury. 185 page illustrated small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 6.99. ISBN: 978-0-7475-9730-8.

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It's easy to describe contemporary children's fiction as a series of modern-day fairy tales but ‘Coraline’ is one of the few books that honestly deserves the label.

Coraline and her distracted parents have just moved to a new flat in a big, creaky old house. The house's other residents, such as the faded theatrical stars Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, are utterly barmy and Coraline is bored. While exploring, she finds a strange little door that seems to lead nowhere, but when her parents disappear she discovers it is the entrance to a flat just like her own – almost.

Neil Gaiman's book, winner of a Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2003 and terrifyingly illustrated by David McKean, bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘Alice In Wonderland’: a spunky heroine; a tunnel that takes her into another world; a sarcastically aloof cat and a looking glass. But instead of falling into a detached fantasy universe, Coraline finds a house that has been created especially for her by the 'other mother', a woman with shiny black buttons instead of eyes, as a deadly trap.

The 'other mother', a monster masquerading as Coraline's real mum, steps neatly into the traditional evil stepmother role by enticing the little girl with things she thinks she wants – delicious food, wonderful toys and attentive parents - but she never quite manages to pull off the façade. In fact, she promises eternal devotion if Coraline only sews buttons onto her own eyes; a simple yet devastatingly gruesome compromise.

In children's fantasy, the fun always begins after the parents have been disposed of. But instead of running riot, Coraline bravely challenges her 'other mother' to a game to win back her parents and the souls of the children who were less fortunate. Like Roald Dahl's Matilda and Lewis Carroll's Alice, Gaiman's children are by far the most sensible characters. Coraline sagely points out that having everything you want is not what people really want: ‘Coraline wondered why so few of the adults she had met made any sense.’ Her perfect balance of fear and confidence carries us safely through what is a genuinely horrible story, even the false ending makes your stomach lurch like a missed step.

Running through it all are little childish details that make it even more believable: the colour of Coraline's socks and the mini-pizza that she ate for dinner, along with passing references to writers such as Shakespeare that slyly reward young readers with a little extra literary knowledge.

Gaiman wants his audience to see the world with a touch of childish wonder and as a result of her adventuring, Coraline learns to see her eccentric neighbours and tired parents in a new light.

My only complaint is with the cover of this edition, which carries an image of the recent ‘Coraline’ film directed by Henry Selick. The film itself is excellent, a true-to-the-spirit adaptation of Gaiman's story and a beautiful stop-motion animation, but the tagline 'An adventure too weird for words' on the front cover is hugely demeaning to the book itself. If it wasn't for Gaiman's ability to weave whole new worlds with just a few well-chosen words, the film wouldn't exist at all.

Izzy Kaminski

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