On Literary Censorship: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline
A book about facing fear with bravery in a world made by monsters
Few things are as powerful in this world as a supportive guardian. Someone to see you in all your strangeness and encourage you to develop that into a unique garden through which you navigate the world. I am fortunate enough to have that in my life, even when at its most chaotic. Part of my love of reading and writing comes from having people who never told me I couldn’t or limited access to the things I was interested in. My mom is, to this day, the staunchest supporter for my writing even when I get down in the weeds of imposter syndrome and forget the joy it brings me to put words to paper.
I don’t remember which version of Coraline I encountered first, novella or film. I do remember ravenously collecting Neil Gaiman works in any form they take, and the wonder of watching something as enticingly dark yet approachable as Coraline on the screen. The theater experience with that adaption remains one of the most vivid moviegoing memories I have, and revisiting the novella for this series was like returning to a comfortingly dreary old house with secrets and love in its walls. I should preface the rest of this piece by confessing that, actually, there isn’t any record I can find of Coraline being banned, though it has occasionally been challenged for being “unsuited to age group” which is, far as I can gather, the catch-all phrase for something your parents notice you reading that freaks them out even if you are enjoying yourself. But when I was a child I faced many things that felt insurmountably scary, and my only choice was to face them with bravery and come out on the other side a changed and stronger person. I do not think I encountered Coraline until after most of my obstacles in the real world had been conquered, but nonetheless I can find myself in her story of being consistently misnamed and thrust into a world just this side of terrifying with a cloud of amorphous danger hanging over her.
To call Coraline Jones an unusual child is both a truth and a misnomer. She is, as far as I can tell, just like any other girl her age. Every girl I know went through a vaguely witchy phase where they wanted to know the secrets around every corner of the world and carve their space in a crowd with something as individual as day-glo green gloves with a school uniform. Some of us are still in that phase decades later. But she is unusual to the adults around her who seem to see the world primarily in faded shades of disappointment and dreariness where she longs for color and mystery. She is a vaguely dark soul of a different sort, spinning scary scenarios to see who will react to them. She is a storyteller at her heart in a way that children always are, and that adults constantly run the risk of losing.
Like Alice before her, she is led to a strange part of her real life and thrust into a darkly fantastical world of wonder and mystery unlike anything she has encountered before. Unlike Alice, however, Coraline is facing much more deadly stakes in her looking-glass land. There have, in fact, already been lives lost to the monster centuries before she ever arrives. Coraline wanders down the tunnel and comes out on the other side into an uncanny, half-built mirror world after her mother denies her the bright green gloves of her dreams. When she turns down going to the store with her mother, Coraline is left alone for what seems like days. Left in a house with no food and no one to entertain her, she is lured by shadows down to the door with the brick wall behind it only to discover that the brick wall is gone; in its place is a world that might be everything she ever dreamed of — if she’s willing to pay the price.
There’s plenty of room to read all sorts of insidious things into Gaiman’s novella. The children who have died before Coraline’s arrival, how did they get there? What tools were used to lure them in? What methods used to snuff them out? Coraline is most afraid of spiders, so the Other Mother’s true form is a large, languid arachnid. She is the only constant in this world, all else is merely something she built to lure the children in because, according to Coraline’s feline companion, “she wants something to love other than herself,” so she preys on children with an air of loneliness about them. But smothering the life out of something is not love, and draining it of life for the sake of building your own strength is a fate worse than death.
There has been something of an accidental throughline this month, thematically speaking, when it comes to the books I’ve chosen. It seems that, for the most part, the greatest anxiety at the root of works meant for children is the anxiety over being thrust into an unfamiliar world without the protection of adults before you’re ready to face it, and how to go about facing and conquering those fears to come out the other side. Even Winnie the Pooh ends on a bittersweet note of Pooh asking Christopher Robin to remember him if he never returns to the Hundred Acre Wood. Alice ends with a bittersweet tone of hoping she does not lose her sense of imagination. Coraline, in some respects, also shares a lot with Where the Wild Things Are, wherein a little boy wanders into a world of his own creation and is confronted with monsters who, though kindly, are nonetheless intimidating enough to send him running back home to his true mother and the safety of his true home.
What sets Coraline apart even from Gaiman’s other work is that it is unabashedly terrifying and encouraging all at once, with a young girl at its center. Few stories would place a girl of perhaps twelve on her own in a world where she and those around her whom she is trying to save could well and truly die at any moment. Coraline spends essentially the entire novella afraid for her life and the lives of those she loves, yet she pushes onward anyway. She finds that getting everything she thought she wanted at her fingertips 24/7 isn’t what makes life worth living, but being brave in the face of the scariest situations imaginable brings with it a courage you did not know you had.
I spent most of my childhood being absolutely terrified of most everything, whether it made sense for me to be so or not. I also had to face most of it head on if I wanted to get to the other end of the fear. I did not start interrogating my anxieties until I became a teenager, and now I have made a small, budding career out of examining under a microscope the things in my life I used to be too terrified to look full in the face. The binding on my copy of Coraline is starting to crack and wear. She has followed me through many a move for so long that I cannot remember when I first got her. But she, and Nobody Owens of Graveyard Book, and Tristram of Stardust, and Anansi, the Endless siblings, and Gaiman himself have been with me throughout enough of my life to be a safe haven from which to draw inspiration and encouragement when the world seems much too dark to make sense anymore. Perhaps more than any other author, Gaiman’s works have shown me the power and value in storytelling. He has shown me through his work and the one glorious reading I got to attend (the same day I found out I got into the college of my dreams) that there is nothing to hold anyone back from doing the things they love, as long as they are willing to put in the work to face the dragons, whatever form they might take.