As authors go, Neil Gaiman is a global phenomenon. Gone are the days when he was the ‘property’ of comics geeks gushing over his run on Miracleman (which I think we can now safely and legally call Marvelman now), Black Orchid and, of course, Sandman. There aren’t many that recall that his novel Neverwhere (about a secret world beneath London – secret worlds being something of a Gaiman trope) started life as a BBC 6-part series with a great script, good acting, bad camerawork and wobbly scenery (a bit like Doctor Who before the 2005 comeback). Also gone are the days when he was honing his word skills writing for UK Playboy wannabes magazine Knave. (Remember Knave? No?)
No, these days, NG is pretty huge: bestselling novels (American Gods – likely to be made into an HBO series – and the Ocean at the End of the Lane), novels adapted for major blockbuster films (Stardust, Coraline), film scripts of his own (Beowulf, Mirrormask)… Good for Neil, he’s made it big, and he hasn’t (as far as I’ve noticed) compromised. He writes highly imaginative, often eerie, mostly clever, satisfying stories.
And he writes for children or, as the publishing industry labels them these days, “younger readers”. So, what about his kids’ books? How does the master of the twisted, unsettling and macabre (example: a minor Sandman character purchased one of the Greek muses – Calliope – and raped her just in order to get ideas for his new book) change his subject matter for a juvenile audience? Well, he doesn’t, not really. He doesn’t tone it down much at all, which causes no little consternation with Bible Belters and the like. However, he does communicate directly about such things as fear, horror, danger, bravery, resourcefulness, and triumph without sugar-coating anything and without necessarily resorting to unrealistic endings (or at least, they’re realistic within the context of worlds that might contain, vampires, Norse gods, and murderous secret societies). And giving children a fictional framework in which they can approach and deal with some of life’s harsher shit has to be a good thing, right?
Here are some of his better known works for the growing up gang.
The Wolves in the Walls: a picture book with illustrations by Dave McKean (which means they’re both innovative, evocative and at times bloody disturbing) this is a short fun story about a girl who is convinced there are wolves living in the walls of the house. Her family don’t believe her until the wolves emerge and drive them out… after that, it’s just a matter finding a way to reclaim the family home. The style is that of a bedtime picture book for pre-readers but Gaiman doesn’t ‘talk down’, instead offering up a subject that could be quite disturbing but is ultimately quite fun.
The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish: another McKean picture book, but not as dark as Wolves. Kids swap stuff all the time but when the protagonist exchanges his dad for a couple of goldfish, his mum orders him to get his father back (mothers!). Unfortunately, the dad has been passed on several times thanks to a series of swaps and this short story becomes a treasure trail as the lead character searches for his father.
The Graveyard Book: now we’re getting dark. This 300-pager opens with a multiple murder. The only survivor is a toddler who ends up in the titular graveyard and is adopted and raised by ghosts, learning lessons about both life and death as he encounters ghouls, werewolves, vampires and someone who is almost certainly the Angel of Death. And all the time, his would-be murderer is searching for him.
Coraline: what child hasn’t wished their family were more exciting? Coraline does and discovers that she has an other mother and father living on the other side of a door that goes nowhere. The good news is they want her to stay forever and ever; the bad news is, there’s a price (isn’t there always?) The movie was okay but the book is delightfully quirky, odd and chilling, not to mention inspirational as Coraline faces down overwhelming odds.
So, should you subject your dear offspring (or nieces, nephews, grandchildren, godchildren, random brats, etc.) to Mr G’s stories? Well, up to you but I’d suggest the answer should be, yes. The plots are unfailingly gripping. The characters are sympathetic (sometimes even the villains. Maybe especially even the villains). The creepy bits are deliciously shuddersome. And best of all, they were made to be read aloud. The words follow the natural rhythms of the human voice and there’s no better feeling than reading a chilling but ultimately (usually in some fashion) uplifting tale to a gripped audience. And in that respect, Neil Gaiman always delivers.