While trying to explain how very cool it is that Neil Gaiman won the Newbery (which mostly consisted of me naming other books and sighing: The Hero and The Crown! The Tale of Desperaux! The Witch of Blackbird Pond! A Wrinkle in Time!) I also starting blathering on about Coraline, another book of Gaiman’s that was very, very popular in my classroom. To begin with, it had the three magic elements that attract middle school ambivalent readers: it looked short; it looked scary; it looked simple. Of course, all of those things were merely ways into the book. Although it was short, the story it told was complete and felt world-shaping. Although it looked scary, it was really *creepy* (more on that later). And, although it looked simple, the story, and the conversations it prompted in my classroom, proved it was anything but.
My favourite conversation of all was between two of my most-anti-reading girls. After nearly two years with me (and improving their reading levels a LOT), they were now willing to read, but still very picky and demanding about the amount of effort they had to put into the process. These were girls who would rather read a “meh” book that demanded less of them than an excellent book they would have to work at. (Of course, they were also Twilight obsessed, but that’s a different story). Coraline, though, Coraline got passed around the group like some sort of trifecta pick: the teacher liked it, the students liked it, the parents liked it.
Why was that? Well, everyone comes to a book from a different place, but I think these girls liked Coraline because it felt like an adventure. Also, though, because (as I overheard one day… what? teachers are consummate eavesdroppers!)
Dude, Coraline isn’t SCARY. Scary is, like, Nightmare on Elm Street. Scary’s not REAL. Coraline is CREEPY. I kept thinking that if I opened the wrong door at my own house, I’d end up somewhere really not good.
(13 year old girl)
So that was the magic then. These girls never really connected with Harry Potter, Frodo, or Merlin. Their lives were, quite frankly, too fraught with REAL danger to tolerate fantasy danger. But, they did connect with Coraline–the danger she faced, evil adults and world that made no sense, was something they felt was more real. It was creepy not scary. And they loved it.
Now, why they loved the completely unreal and unbelievably perfect Edward and Jacob is fodder for another post.