The story of Coraline Jones and her adventure in the Other World is one that has crossed many avenues of storytelling – father to daughter, pen to paper, book to movie, studio set to 3D screen.
Once upon a time – in the early 1990s – author Neil Gaiman’s daughter Holly was, as he remembers, “four or five years old. She used to come home from school and she would see me sitting and writing. She would then clamber up on my knee and dictate little stories to me; these were often about small girls named Holly whose mothers would be kidnapped by evil witches who looked like their mothers.
“I thought, ‘Right, I’ll go and find a book like this for her.’ I looked, but there wasn’t anything even remotely like that. So I figured I would write that book, and I started to do so.”
Holly Gaiman reflects, “Coraline was a story that my Dad read me bits and pieces of when I was a little girl, a story that he had started writing for me and one which nobody else had ever heard or read. It’s a lovely story, one that has both haunted and inspired me since I was a little girl.”
But after completing a few chapters, Neil Gaiman found his career taking off, and it would be another five or six years before he found the time to return to Coraline. At which point he “suddenly thought, ‘Holly is getting too old for it.’”
However, she now had a younger sister, Maddy, and Neil Gaiman realized that that if he did not finish the book soon his other daughter would be too old for it as well. With a formal book contract being drawn up, he came up with a plan for productivity; “For the next two years, instead of reading in bed before I turned off the light, I would write Coraline.”
He began to keep a notebook beside his bed and before he went to sleep he would write 50-100 words, maybe 5-6 lines each evening. “It was a very slow way of writing,” he admits. “That’s about 1 page every 6 days. But, doing it every night, eventually, I found myself approaching the end.” Finally, in 2000, he was able to spend a week finishing the book.
Central to the story is a childhood memory of the author’s; just as children are for a time certain that their toys come to life when they are asleep or not looking, the young Neil Gaiman had his own household suspicions. They were stoked by an old manor house that he was living in with his parents. He recounts, “There was a door in a living room that opened onto a brick wall. But I was convinced that it wouldn’t always do that. I tried sneaking up on it; I’d lean against it, as if I was doing something else, and then open it quickly and look.
“I thought if I could only approach it properly, there would be a corridor behind it. I had a dream that I opened the door and there was a tunnel. In the book, Coraline finds a door that has been bricked up, but one day she goes through the door and there is a corridor.”
Crawling along, she soon finds herself in the Other World and starts to settle in. She chooses to overlook the fact that Other Mother and Other Father have black buttons for eyes. “It is the kind of metaphor that allows for many interpretations,” says Neil Gaiman. “They are all correct; the eyes are the windows to the soul, the Romans put coins on the eyes of the dead, and so forth.”
It is the discovery of three ghost children, imprisoned long ago by Other Mother, that helps spur Coraline to forsake the Other World. She realizes that she is their only hope and that her own family back in the real world is also in danger. As the author notes, “I wanted to write a book about what being brave is; it’s being absolutely scared and doing what you must do, despite fear and obstacles.
“I also wanted to express that, sometimes the people who love you may not pay you all the attention you need; and, sometimes the people who do pay you attention may not love you in the healthiest way.”
The after-school story had become a bedtime one; having finished the book, Neil Gaiman read a chapter each night to Maddy Gaiman before she fell asleep. He admits, “If she had been scared or troubled by it, I probably would have put it away. But she loved it.”
Maddy Gaiman comments, “It’s a story that draws you in and keeps you there. You get attached to Coraline, and root for her to come out on top.”
The book, illustrated by Neil Gaiman’s frequent collaborator Dave McKean, was published in the U.S. by HarperCollins in 2002; and the book went straight onto The New York Times best-seller list.
Authors Philip Pullman (the His Dark Materials trilogy) and “Lemony Snicket” (Daniel Handler) were among those who praised the book. Neil Gaiman reports that “because of its awards and because Coraline is written in a very plain vocabulary and has an interesting story, it got taught as a set text in schools.”
Its honors include the American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adults; the Hugo and Nebula Awards; Child Magazine’s Best Book of the Year; and a Publishers Weekly Best Book citation, among many others. The unabridged audio book, read by the author, was voted a Publishers Weekly Best New Audio.
The book has inspired a short film by a trio of Italian moviemakers; a puppet show by an Irish theatrical troupe; a staging by a Swedish youth theater group; a hardcover graphic novel adaptation; and an off-Broadway musical.
Worldwide, the book has sold over one million copies. The author notes, “Of all my books, Coraline has been translated into the most languages – 30.”