Coraline is about a young girl who likes exploring and finds a hidden door to another world… so far a pretty common premise for a “children’s book,” right? But what’s behind the door is what makes Coraline so terrible: the “other mother” who unlike her real mother pays her lots of attention, cooks good food, and gives her what she wants. But also unlike her real mother, the other mother has buttons for eyes and wants to love Coraline to death.
As an adult, I love Coraline. I picked it up on a whim, and the story has haunted me for weeks with the clicking, scratching noise of the other mother’s hand, and I’m well past the 8+ recommended reading age. But for kids? It might be too terrible, in the old scary sense of the word.
Now, I know children need evil in their stories. And the other mother is like the wicked step mother from fairy tales only more evil–
The other mother embodies what every child hates and fears in their own mothers: the controlling part, the part that has the power to grant dreams and to crush them.
And Coraline (as does every child) has to defy and defeat her in order to grow up.
But my ability to see this might be because I’m out on the other side of childhood, at least for the most part I like to think. Can 8-year-olds get past the button eyes, the vicious rats, the soul-less child ghosts to a larger theme or will it just plain terrify them?
Which makes me wonder: who is the real audience for books like Coraline?
There’s been a lot of discussion about adults reading YA lit. Joel Stein touched off a firestorm saying they shouldn’t, but I say it’s good for us. Heaven knows revisiting childhood is the first thing a head shrink will tell an adult to do. And arguably every time anyone enters the world of a book, be it YA or high literature, they re-enter the child-like world of “let’s pretend.”
So go ahead adults: children’s and young adult books are for you too! But make no mistake, while it might be fun to pretend to be Katniss in The Hunger Games or the adventurous Coraline in Gaiman’s book, but really, we adults might be a bit closer to characters like the Games’ President Snow or Coraline’s terrifying other mother.
The movie is pretty good too, but the book is better. Read it first!