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11/07/2014 09:19 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

The Weirdest, Most Original, and Frightening Book... That Children Will Love

By Sarah Jane Abbott for Off the Shelf

When young Coraline's mother asks her where she has been all day, Coraline's fanciful response is, "I was kidnapped by aliens... they came down from outer space with ray guns, but I fooled them by wearing a wig and laughing in a foreign accent, and I escaped." To all this, her mother replies, "Yes, dear. Now, I think you could do with some more hair clips, don't you?" Ah, parents -- they never listen. Perhaps if Coraline's parents had paid more attention, they might not have been kidnapped by the malevolent entity that lived in the "empty" apartment next door and Coraline might not have had to spend the last precious days of her summer vacation locked in a race-against-the-clock scavenger hunt to save all three of their souls.

Neil Gaiman's Coraline is a dark fairy tale full of light horror, intensely peculiar neighbors, and an adventurous young protagonist with far too much time on her hands. When Coraline and her parents move into a multi-family home midway through the summer, Coraline finds herself with nothing to do. She has read all of the books and is tired of her toys. She gets acquainted with her new neighbors: a grandmotherly but odd pair of retired actresses and the crazy old man upstairs who is training a troupe of mice to do tricks and play tiny instruments. But when she tires of them, she is back to square one: lonely and bored. That is, until she finds the door.

The door in the kitchen is bricked up -- Coraline's mother explains that it used to go somewhere but was walled off when the sizable manor house was split into apartments. Later on when Coraline is home alone, she opens the door again and sees that now it does go somewhere; the door leads... back to her own apartment. Well, sort of. The other apartment is inhabited by Coraline's other parents. They are almost identical to Coraline's real parents, except that they are very attentive...and they have shiny black buttons sewn over their eyes. Despite this creepy detail, the other apartment is fun. Coraline's other room is filled with delights -- "wind-up angels that fluttered around the bedroom... books with pictures that writhed and crawled and shimmered [and] little dinosaur skulls that chattered their teeth as she passed." The other mother's food is fabulous, not like Coraline's father's dreaded "recipes". The other parents implore Coraline to stay with them in their wondrous parallel world forever -- all she must do to stay is let them sew little black buttons over her eyes. Coraline politely declines (despite being mildly horrified) and goes home.

That might have been the end of it, except that when she returns Coraline finds that her parents missing. When she realizes that they are trapped in the other apartment, she goes back through the door to find them. Brave little Coraline challenges the evil other mother to a bet -- if Coraline can locate the trapped souls of three children (who, unfortunately, let the other mother sew buttons over their eyes and became her prisoners) and her parents, all 6 of them can leave, just like that. But if she gives up and cannot find all five souls, Coraline must stay and be the other mother's daughter forever.

Coraline is chock full of things that kids (and adults) will delight in: magical toys, secret passages, possibly-psychic instrument-playing mice, eccentric neighbors, and parallel worlds. Coraline even has a Cheshire-Cat-esque feline ally: the black cat is aloof and cryptic, but ultimately helpful and wise, spouting observations that sound like ancient proverbs. When Coraline observes that the parallel universe the other mother created only extends a little way into the backyard before looping back on itself, the cat replies, "Spiders' webs only have to be large enough to catch flies." The comparison to Alice in Wonderland is a good one -- Coraline is like a modern-day Alice. That is, if Wonderland happened to be a terrifying netherworld ruled by a soul-stealing, button-eyed demon. The story is deliciously creepy in a way that kids will enjoy (but not have nightmares over).

Dianne Wynne Jones, beloved author of fantasies for children and adults, called Coraline, "the most splendidly original, weird, and frightening book I have read, and yet full of things children will love." This sums up the novel perfectly; at the risk of sounding very cliché, Coraline is fun for the whole family. It is the kind of book that children will beg to have read to them at bedtime...and then parents will end up reading ahead over a glass of wine long after the kids are asleep. More of a graphic novel aficionado? Try the wonderful 2009 graphic novel adaption by P. Craig Russell.

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