Today is the first day of Banned Books Week, a week that draws critical attention to book censorship in schools and libraries across the country. Sadly enough, Banned Books Week is celebrating its …
"When I first picked up Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2002) in the Young Adult section of my local library, I remember thinking to myself, “This will be a very frightening book.” This thought excited me, as it often does around that teen-age when you begin to actively seek out the things that frighten you. Coraline seemed to me a darker retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with the perfect balance of whimsy and darkness only Gaiman can execute so effortlessly. I have never thought of Coraline as a young-adult novel, because Coraline, like so many of her YA protagonist counterparts, must face challenges that would defeat most adults. Though she is a young child, Coraline is far more mature and self-aware than most of the adults in the novel, and yet she’s still able to bring joy and silliness to the most horrifying of situations. Within the twisted, fantastical world of the Other Mother, Coraline is given the option of remaining within the dreamscape, constantly refabricated to suit Coraline’s desires and dreams—she can remain, as it were, in the rabbit hole. At a price, that is. Yet Coraline chooses not to be blinded by her own selfish desires, no matter how fluorescent and enamoring they may be. She cares too deeply about her parents, and the other children that have been exploited by the Other Mother, and her friend the Cat. She even possesses sympathy for the Other Father, an amorphous phantasm of her father the Other Mother discards once he’s served his purpose. At the climax of the story, when Coraline has the option to end the nightmarish pursuit of the Other Mother and give into the fantasy, Coraline sagely remarks, “‘I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted, just like that, and it didn’t mean anything? What then?’” (Gaiman 2002). It’s a simple sentiment the book slowly builds around, one that resonates with life-long ethics of gratitude, hard work and not expecting that the world necessarily owes you something.
Coraline also has one of the most profound passages about bravery that I’ve ever read. She tells the Cat a story about when she and her father went exploring in an old rubbish dump and accidentally stumble across a wasp’s nest. Coraline’s father scoops her up and carries her to safety, though he gets stung by many wasps in the process. During the escape, her father loses his glasses and has to return to the wasp’s nest to retrieve them. Coraline says, “’It wasn’t brave because he wasn’t scared: it was the only thing he could do. But going back again to get his glasses, when he knew the wasps were there, when he was really scared. That was brave.’ ‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave” (Gaiman 2002). Being fearless doesn’t make you brave, but rather acknowledging the fear and not letting it own you demonstrates courage. As a reader, the novel is truly terrifying, for the trials that Coraline has to undergo are the stuff of nightmares. Even after it seems that Coraline has escaped the clutches of the Other Mother and saved the souls of the forgotten children, she is still called upon to be brave, though no one within her own world understands or acknowledges her courage. The invisible acts of bravery and charity our lives are built around.
Coraline remains one of my favorite books, enduring for its charm, sly sense of humor and candor about the night-side of life. The frightening elements of Coraline are what make it so mesmerizing, as they teach us how misunderstood the darkness truly is and how much we can cope with and overcome. As Gaiman prefaces the book, dragons, darkness, violence and fear are all very real and necessary parts of our world, whether adult or otherwise. But dragons can also be vanquished, doors closed on the scuttling, malicious things that populate our nightmares and waking reality. That is a lesson worth learning, and one I continue to learn every day since I first finished the book.”