of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Even before the publication of his children's books, Neil Gaiman was known
to many young adults from such crossover novels as Stardust and Neverwhere
and his series of graphic novels, The Sandman, where he excelled at moving
readers from the realm of the ordinary to the fantastic and often horrific.
In Good Omens, his partnership with the enduringly popular Terry Pratchett,
Gaiman showcased his humor as well, creating one of the funniest interpretations
of the Apocalypse, complete with a thoroughly modern incarnation of the Four
Horsemen. So what happens when Gaiman directs his talent to children's books?
For The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, Coraline, and The Wolves in the Walls, Gaiman may have changed his audience from adult to child, but he remains true to his unique style. In his first work written specifically for children, the picture book The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, a boy does indeed, as the title suggest, trade his father for two goldfish. His reaction to his mother's understandable displeasure is a universal truth of childhood: "She only calls me young man if she is very mad." Dave McKean's multi-textured collages, which quote characters, scenes or styles from Western masterpieces, complete the narrative by depicting this amusingly bizarre sequences of events from the boy's perspective.
In Coraline, a chapter book for readers in middle grades and higher, Gaiman distorts the commonplace and introduces young readers to the subtle yet more terrifying level of the grotesque often found in classic horror films. Like Hitchcock, Gaiman imbues an ordinary setting with an impending sense of doom as Coraline discovers a mysterious door in her family's new apartment. The door eventually opens to reveal a darkened hallway, and down that hallway is an apartment and family that at first seem to be duplicates of her own. Only when she looks closer does she realize that the 'other mother' and 'other father' are not quite like her mother and her father, and that this other world is less a copy of her world than it is a distorted reflection conveyed by looking glasses found at a circus. In rendering Gaiman's monstrous beings visible, McKean's sparse black and white drawings do not dispel any of the story's sense of foreboding and terror. Instead they add to the reader's sense of uneasiness.
For his most recent work, The Wolves in the Walls, Gaiman has again teamed up with Dave McKean to produce a book that blends the mounting terror of Coraline with some of the humor of The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish in a heavily illustrated picture-book format that recalls Gaiman's graphic novels. When Lucy hears noises behind the walls of her family's house she is sure that there are wolves lurking behind them. Her warnings to her parents are shrugged off and ignored (though everybody understands that "when the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over"), until the day the wolves break through the walls. Gaiman combines the classic folkloric motif of marauding wolves, the classic thriller motif of being watched, and the classic fear of things hiding in unseen places in conveying Lucy's mounting concerns and fears. Through shadowing and elongated figures McKean's collages and cubist-like depictions of Lucy and her family elaborate on Gaiman's reshaping of the ordinary. Text and art work together to build an atmosphere of increasing dread that is broken only when Lucy finds a solution to ridding the house of the wolves.
Gaiman is adept at creating worlds that will, like Coraline's 'other' mother, ensnare young readers. Although his horror stories draw on classic literary and cinematographic devices to build suspense, his stories are never clichéd or simplistic. Perhaps the highest compliment we can pay to Gaiman is that the uneasiness found in his stories will linger with his readers long after the story has ended.
Selected Bibliography of Children's Books: