Looking Back with Button Eyes

Coraline horrified me as a child. So much, that I purposed never read Neil Gaiman again. Years later, I read Neverwhere and he immediately became one of my favorite authors.

I decided to revisit Coraline this year. I spent my read trying to dissect what it was that upset me as a child. I mean, it’s intentionally creepy. The heroine, Coraline, is a self-proclaimed explorer who finds a hidden door in her old house. It leads to an alternate version of her life, with an “other mother” who has buttons for eyes. The other mother invites Coraline to live in this new world forever. All she must do is allow her other mother to replace her eyes with buttons.

But I remember it being more than the danger and suspense of the plot that unsettled me. The feeling went deeper, into a dark place I feared to explore as a child.

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picture by pointblizzy

She seemed lonely to me, forgotten and ignored. She had no friends her age to play with and the adults dismiss her frequently throughout the story, even when she’s in danger. Her interactions with her father reinforced the story’s atmosphere of abandonment. He always seemed to have his back to Coraline when she spoke to him.

Enter the other mother who is eager to meet all Coraline’s needs, including Coraline’s desire for affection. But the intensity of the interest is unsettling, stalker-like. A silent watching and waiting, that quickly turns dangerous.

“It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Back then, Coraline read like the story of a girl offered the choice of living as outcast or prey. That is what made the book true horror to me. Ghosts fade in the daylight and demons can be exorcized, but if everyone abandons you, then loneliness is always.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

I often describe my childhood as silent. I combated my loneliness by retreating behind the door of my imagination, where I lived my hours in daydreams of closeness and acceptance. I had a whole other family in my mind, whose button-eyed gaze never looked through me. I wasn’t superfluous to them; I was loved.

Coraline disturbed me because I would have traded my eyes for buttons. In some ways, I already had.

During my reread, I paid close attention to how her real parents treated her and saw that they weren’t as neglectful as I’d remembered. There is, however, enough repetition in the text of her father turned away and of her desire for physical touch, that I don’t blame my younger self for picking up on it. It’s difficult to filter out the part of a story that speaks directly into your life. What encourages me most now is how, despite his neglect, she turns to his wisdom to cope with the oncoming darkness.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

Coraline’s story is actually about how bravery comes from fear. Fear is essential to bravery, for without fear, bravery has no purpose. This is a lesson Coraline learned from her father. He helped her choose to face her fears by walking back into the claws of the dark.

“‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.'”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Coraline’s parents may have denied her the closeness she needed, but she was still able to learn from them, lessons essential to her survival and maturity. Dysfunctional, even broken, families have something to give.

My childhood will remain silent. But now, in the family I’ve chosen to be part of, I can fight to fill the rooms with love. I know the mistakes of yesterday because I lived them and braved their shadows alone. And as Coraline reminded herself that she was brave many times before she believed it, I will preach the pain of my past to myself again and again until it makes me stronger.

I will be brave. No, I am brave.

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Book Review: “Kell, the Alien” by Darcy Pattison

When I first got my Kindle, I was amazed at how many fantastic books were floating around to download for free. FREE! I went kinda crazy and tried to download all the books, paying little attention to content. I now attempt to be more discerning, but it’s so thrilling to be introduced to a fabulous new author.

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If you pay any attention to my reviews, you’ll notice I tend to read a good deal of Middle Grade. This is just as much because I enjoy light reading, as it is that I am searching for gems to pass on to my children when they’re old enough.

And this one was certainly a gem.

Darcy Pattison’s adorable story is about Kell, a young alien trying to navigate life on Earth after he and his parents become indefinitely stranded here. The characters are super sweet and lovable, and the plot is full of innocent fun. Rich Davis’ excellent illustrations scattered throughout the chapters make the story extra cute.

I have already downloaded and started another one of Pattison’s stories, and am only waiting to get the next installment of Kell’s series because I can’t decide if I want it in print or e-book.

I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of the first book. The Kindle edition is still free on Amazon, (which you can read on the Kindle app if you don’t have a kindle).

Download it here! And then let me know if you loved it as much as I did.

 

 

Book Review: “The Tiger Rising” by Kate DiCamillo

There have been a lot of healthy learning curves in my time spent living with my in-laws.   One that still continues to baffle me is the reading habits of my eleven-year-old sister-in-law. Partly because I am her ride to the library and partly because I read in virtually every genre and age group, she sometimes asks me for book recommendations. Some days I’ll try to help, others I’ll just shrug and say, “I have no idea.” I can never tell what’s appropriate for her or what will make her upset for one reason or another.

What I believe I’ve learned is that you can’t truly know what is appropriate for someone else’s kid. I live in the same house as her, but I can’t gage from one book to the next how much she’s matured or what content she can handle. Therefore, I ask that you please take this into consideration with my recommendation on the book below.

Personally, I love it when MG authors aren’t afraid to deal with hard topics. I especially love it when they do it in a way that is both wise and tender, so that younger readers can metabolize the depth of the themes they’re dealing with. From what I’ve read of her work, this is one of Kate DiCamillo’s talents, and her book The Tiger Rising is a perfect example of this. It is a short read, only 128 pages, which I actually think is one aspect of it that makes it easier to digest.

The story centers around a young boy and girl who discover a caged tiger. This becomes a metaphor for the struggles in both their lives, that of repressed anger and sadness. This book is about dealing with immense loss. Along with that, it also contains realistic portrayals of bullying and a heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a family living in a motel, barely making their way. It is not a light bubbly read. It’s not intended to be. Yet I think it excellently done.

I have seen some reviewers condemning it because it’s too sad or heavy. To me, what makes this a worthy read even for a younger audience is the tactful yet truthful way the hard issues are addressed. There should be space in children’s reading experience for books that show them how other people have to live. It helps them develop empathy for those around them. For example, say that a bully is made to read this book by a parent or a teacher, seeing the pain that the tormenters cause to the main characters might prick their conscience about their own behavior. Reading, if the writing is good, forces you into the headspace of another person as a necessary part of the experience. There are even studies that show reading good literature improves a persons ability to empathize.

Also, let’s not forget that not all children lead charmed existences. Life’s ugliness does not pass over you because of age. If the child is experiencing a similar tragedy to the characters, it gives the child hope to read the story, not pain. They can say, “if someone I don’t know could write about a kid just like me, than I’m not alone.” That’s why truth in writing is so important.  And, solong as it’s done on a level that they understand and can cope with, is it ever too early to preach truth to a child?

Only you know when and if your child is ready for certain content. Personally, I loved this book and was not at all uncomfortable with its target audience, as I have been with other YA/MG books I’ve read. Kate DiCamillo did justice to a lot of heavy themes with how she gently unfolded the tale. It read like crawling into the lap of a protective loved one. Her words brushed the hair from my forehead, and when I closed the book my heart felt foremost this message, “life can be ugly, but remember child, you’re not alone.”

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Book Review: “Sold” by Patricia McCormick

This book. Just wow.

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It’s poetry. Literally. The whole book is a series of poems all telling the story of Lakshmi, a 13 year old girl from Nepal who is sold into prostitution.

It won’t be any surprise when I say that this book was hard to read. It’s Young Adult and not atrociously graphic, but it’s well written enough that it nearly shattered me. I barely slept after I finished it, because it made me feel so powerless. The author went to India and Nepal to interview girls who were saved from child slavery and sex trafficking. It didn’t matter that Lakshmi’s story was fiction; the whole book just feels far too real. It made me feel miserably uncomfortable and helpless, like when you get an alert on your mobile that there has been some global catastrophe, and you know that there is little you personally can do to help.

I think that telling this story through poetry was especially effective, because of the vivid visual nature of poetry. Yes, this can also be accomplished through prose, but I wonder then if the story would have needed a lot more excess description of movement and action. In poems everything is cut back to sensations, sights, smells, sounds, and feelings. This made the book able to talk about something as horribly graphic as child brothels by preserving the essentials and making the trauma palpable.

All I could think was, this girl is only thirteen. This girl is only thirteen.

This book meant a lot to me. It was one of those books that forces your eyes open, drags you from your comfortable life, and screams, “Don’t waste your life. People are suffering. This is real.” These are the kinds of books that deserve medals and awards, because they bring awareness to the world about ugly things. If you can stomach the ugly, read this book.

I spent a day or two looking for organizations that work to stop sex trafficking in Nepal and India. I have placed two links below if you want to read up on the work they do, or donate to help.

World Vision
MountainChild

 

Silas: Vampire and Guardian

Reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is an extremely emotional experience for me. Unlike many book lovers, I don’t make a point of rereading my favorite books every year or so. My “to read” list is so long that I just don’t seem to get around to it. But in the past two years I’ve read The Graveyard Book three times. I have purchased four copies of it and I know I’ll be buying at least two more (the audiobook and the two volume graphic novel). It’s easy for me to get lost in the poetic prose of one of my favorite authors, but the story and the characters reach for me in ways that make me want to hold the book to my chest like it was more teddy bear than paperback.graveyard-book

I love the characters. I love Bod, how strong and brave and foolish he is. How real he is. I love Mr. and Mrs. Owens and Miss Lupescu and Liza Hempstock. But most of all, I love Silas.

Silas, Bod’s guardian, is by far my favorite character. I love how he shelters Bod, protects him, and sees to his needs. I love how he is able to reach a point where he can see he’s sheltering him too much, and learns to let go so that Bod can grow into a man. I love how he can find the humility to apologize for the wrong he’s done. I love how real the love between Bod and Silas is, despite the lack of physical touch or open expression with words and phrases like “I love you.” In their final goodbye, they simply shake hands, but in that handshake so much is said, so much genuine love and affection. Silas’ love for Bod was so evident and unmistakable through Bod’s childhood that, to me, their one final handshake is as good as a thousand kisses and hours of cuddling. Neither of them show evidence of broken dissatisfaction in their parting, the kind that leads to permanent hurt and rifts, because they know they are completely loved and accepted by one another, even if that love always appeared in a less conventional way.

I’m jealous really. I’m jealous of what Bod was given by Silas. I’m jealous of the real love Bod was given in his childhood, not just by Silas, but the whole of the graveyard. All those wise loving departed souls that took a genuine interest in seeing Bod learn to live. They had lived their lives already, and instead of them taking the opportunity of a living boy residing in their midst to vicariously experience another lifetime, they chose only to assist him in learning to live his life on his own.

Cover of Vol. 1 of Graphic Novelization. Silas standing behind Bod.

Nobody has perfect parents, but I think it’s a damn shame when parents tell their children how to live the life God gave them. One of the jobs of a parent is to open the eyes of a child to the world, all the ways of living and being. It’s all well and good to decide in your child’s youth that this or that avenue would be good for them, but should they turn out to want something different for their life, if you respond by cutting down their dreams, force feeding them your views, and breaking their wings so they never learn to fly, or even fall, on their own, you’re not helping them to grow; you’re destroying them. You had your chance to live and choose. This is their life, their choices, all of them: good, bad, or indifferent.

Since my miscarriage, I frequently go back and forth on if I want to take another shot at having a child. I don’t know if I want children, mostly because I’m afraid I’ll be a rotten mother, but I think if I could be certain that I could be a mother like Silas, then that would be enough for me. For on the day my child picked up their bags to leave their childhood, I’d know they knew I loved them, even if it was in my own strange way. I’d know that I’d done everything to protect them from danger in their youth, until they were old enough to take care of themselves. I’d know that I wasn’t perfect, but that my willingness to apologize for my shortcomings had gained me my child’s respect, not censure. I’d know that they would miss me, and be grateful for my influence on their life. I’d know that they would never be afraid to come home, even if they’d made decisions that they knew I would disagree with. They’d know there was a still a place for them because they were loved, unconditionally.

I’m not under the illusion that Silas was somehow perfect. Perhaps the intensity of my current struggles has made me latch onto him a bit unreasonably, reading more into his and Bod’s interactions than was ever intended. Silas wasn’t perfect, but I can’t help but dream and wish that he could somehow have been my guardian too. I think this is what makes reading The Graveyard Book such an emotional experience for me, so that when I turn the last page my eyes are streaming tears and my heart is a twisted knot of hope, longing, and unrecoverable loss.

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illustration by Chris Riddell