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: “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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Truth

Truth is the Goliath we don’t want to face
Yet
Yet he draws the line of battle

Two choices
Stand
Shrink

Stand brings risk
Risk of challenge
Risk of rejection
Risk of solitude
Turned against – forgotten

Shrink brings censure
Censure from me
Censure from family
Censure from others
Loss of self – respect

Dare I?
Dare I stand and risk
Dare I?
Dare I shrink and risk you
You continuing forward blindly
Groping towards falsehood
Can I save you?
Should I?

Fear and Bravery meet
Embrace
Kiss
Meld

I stand
Sling in hand
God help me.

© Rachel Svendsen 2014