Coraline: For brave children who like to squirm

fantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman Coralinechildren's fantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline’s family has just moved into a new flat. Her parents are always busy with their own work and Coraline (please don’t call her Caroline) has no friends or siblings to play with. She spends her time exploring her new apartment complex and the surrounding grounds. She’s got some eccentric neighbors: two little old ladies who love to reminisce about their time on the stage and an old man who trains mice to sing and dance.

But what’s really strange is the extra door in Coraline’s flat. It doesn’t go anywhere. Coraline’s mom says it used to connect to the vacant flat next door, but now it’s bricked up. Except that it’s not always bricked up… sometimes it does go somewhere…

Coraline is a terrific little heroine. Curious and brave, but appropriately cautious, she sets out to discover what’s in the vacant flat. And though what’s there seems rather wonderful at first, Coraline soon realizes that it’s actually rather horrible. Not in a bloody gory kind of way, but in a spooky, spine-tingling, why-the-heck-is-this-so-scary kind of way.

Neil Gaiman understands creepy: buttons for eyes, long red tapping fingernails, long dark hallways, talking rats, trapped and soulless children… I’m not sure why, but just the thought of an “other mother” automatically evokes goosebumps — How incredibly disturbing! The eeriness is accented with excellently terrifying drawings by Dave McKean (who did the Sandman covers).

Coraline is excellent fantasy for sensitive but brave children who like to squirm. I read it to my daughters, and I’m sure I squirmed just as much as they did. My girls enjoyed Coraline’s adventure and maybe now they’ll even be a little less put out when Mommy is too busy to play.

~Kat Hooper

Like many, I watched the brilliant stop-motion filmic adaptation of Coraline before reading Neil Gaiman‘s original story, and as such, it was interesting to see the deviations between the book and film. Much like Stardust, another Gaiman book that was given the big-screen treatment, Coraline is a truly wonderful example of a story of such imaginative potency that any filmic adaptation only enhances and enriches it.

Gaiman is consistently good at two things: drawing upon ancient folklore in which to shape his tales, and remembering what it was like to be a child. So many of his books (most recently The Ocean at the End of the Lane) have taken the structure and elements of fairytales and filtered them through a child protagonist’s point of view, resulting in stories that tap into our most primal fear and anxieties: darkness, isolation, purgatory and — most pertinently for young readers — the idea that our loving and protective parents aren’t really that loving and protective at all.

Coraline Jones is a little girl of an indeterminate age (I would have placed her at about ten, but at other times she seems much younger) who has moved with her parents into a house so large that the owners let out various portions of it as flats. Coraline has an eclectic collection of neighbours, but no friends and inattentive parents. It is on one particularly rainy (and boring) day that she discovers a door leading into another section of the house. Much like Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Coraline finds herself in a house that reflects her own — except here the food is delicious, the toys are delightful, and her parents focus all their attention solely on her. It’s every child’s dream. But strangely enough, this Other Mother has buttons for eyes — and tells Coraline that she only can stay in her specially-made wonderland if she undergoes the same procedure.

The stakes are raised when Coraline returns to her own world only to find that her parents have disappeared. Now it’s up to her to rescue them and the Other Mother’s previous victims. Armed with a stone with a hole bored through it and a talking cat as her only companion, Coraline challenges the Other Mother to a game — her life for the freedom of her parents and the souls of the lost children. The Other Mother accepts, and the game is on…

In many ways Coraline isn’t an original tale. It draws upon countless fairytales in order to shape its content: a threefold trial, missing parents, an evil “stepmother,” a mirror-world, a talking cat, a series of riddles and a heroine that must rely on cunning and bravery if she’s to overcome the challenges she faces. But Gaiman’s light prose and ability to tap into the nature of childhood makes this a story that simultaneously feels new and deeply familiar — as all the very best stories are.

If you’re like me and you watched the film first, you’ll find that both versions of the story complement each other wonderfully. Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation is the perfect visual medium with which to tell this story, and though some elements such as Coraline’s friend Wybie were added to the film, there are other treats to be found in the story — such as an extended confrontation between Coraline and her Other Father in the basement — that didn’t make it onto the big screen.

Whether it’s suitable for very young children is a call that each parent will have to make, taking into consideration that each child has their own threshold for scary tales. Suffice to say that this is a very dark and creepy book. Gaiman’s imagery and ideas can be disturbing, right down to the glistening dark buttons that all the living creatures of the Other House have for eyes (and apparently fear of buttons is actually a real phobia known as koumpounophobia — I doubt any sufferers will enjoy this book). Coraline’s story is dangerous and suspenseful, and any parents looking for a light bedtime read might want to think twice before cracking open this book. Even the illustrations by Dave McKean are macabre in nature, with angular bodies and distorted faces and shadows that grow out from the walls.

That said, being scared is not necessarily a bad thing. As the preface (a quote from G.K. Chesterton) states: “fairytales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Being frightened and learning to face those fears is a process we all have to go through, and is often best prepared for by reading stories that prove that evils of all kind can be defeated with resilience and fortitude. Coraline is a wonderful heroine and this is a great book.

~Rebecca Fisher

Coraline — (2002) Ages 9-12. Available for download at Publisher: The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring… In Coraline’s family’s new flat are twenty-one windows and fourteen doors. Thirteen of the doors open and close. The fourteenth is locked, and on the other side is only a brick wall, until the day Coraline unlocks the door to find a passage to another flat in another house just like her own. Only it’s different. At first, things seem marvelous in the other flat. The food is better. The toy box is filled with wind-up angels that flutter around the bedroom, books whose pictures writhe and crawl and shimmer, little dinosaur skulls thatchatter their teeth. But there’s another mother, and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go. Other children are trapped there as well, lost souls behind the mirrors. Coraline is their only hope of rescue. She will have to fight with all her wits and all the tools she can find if she is to save the lost children, her ordinary life, and herself.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

View all posts by Kat Hooper


  1. Read and loved this book last year, and found the film adaptation to be a real complement to go with it. Granted, I think the 3-D was gimmicky, but the story more than made up for the schtick. Gaiman is good.

  2. Yeah, I agree. My family loved the film which we recently bought. That’s why I decided to read the book to the girls.

  3. I enjoyed the book but haven’t seen the movie. Maybe it’s time.

    • Rebecca /

      It’s time! Watch it for Halloween! (Seriously, it’s one of my favourite movies, and it supplements the book so well, building on the history of the house and the Other Mother’s victims in a way that feels totally in keeping with the book).

  4. Excellent, excellent review. Also, I’m pretty sure kids get more truth from reading about the Other Mother and her button eyes than they do from sweet stories about Sally trying out for the volleyball team.

  5. Sometimes when my little girls are being purposely annoying, I stare at them blankly and tell them I’m the Other Mother. We all get creeped out by this.

  6. Speaking of Halloween, today I’m reading The Graveyard Book.

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