Emerging Voices

David Beagley, editor

Examining the Works of Neil Gaiman: Children Don’t Need Their Literature Dumbo’d Down.

Thomas Byrne

Thomas Byrne studied literature under Professor Tiffany Chapman at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. He graduated in 2014 and works in the tech industry in California, with his wife Kelly and children. He plans on continuing with literary research in Children's Literature & Supernatural Studies.


“I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted just like that, and it didn't mean anything? What then?” (Gaiman, Coraline, 112)


Here we see a young child who some might say has a very firm grip on reality. Others may go so far as to say that Coraline Jones, the protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, has a sober, lugubrious view of life, the kind of view that would normally be shared by cheerless adults. She shows little of the exuberance expected of someone her age, and likewise, less of the fear and panic that may be expected of an eleven year old girl. In many ways, Coraline, while not fulfilling our expectations of a literary little girl, is perhaps instead a paradigm representing modern children, and their literary tastes.

The tween or “middle-reader” audience (generally considered the 8-12 year old range) is problematic with regards to defining appropriate literature - they are several years removed from the “learning to read” phase of their literary development, and are (hopefully) becoming more mature readers - but what does that entail? As John Dixon puts it:

“... trying to explore complex situations and characters from the inside; talking and writing about personal and other familiar experiences that chime in with what's been read, thus approaching them from a new perspective; raising questions about the imaginary world and its people, discovering new connections between the imaginary and real world, and thus discussing what human experience is like” (Dixon, 764).

This is the core of personal literary analysis – the seeking, finding and reflecting on deeper meanings in literature. The middle-reader/transition age is well capable of beginning the journey into this finding of deeper meanings, and one of the primary ways to bring this out is by creating scenarios, plots and characters that are interesting, emotionally engaging and that have a possible connection to, and for, these tween readers.

The previous generations of works that have targeted this age range tended merely to be a continuation of the early reader genre - somewhat bland, Disneyfied works that reinforced the ideas of children as lesser beings, needing protection from scary thoughts and ideas and, by extension, who are considered unable or incapable of delving deeper into their text. However, in Coraline and other works, we see that Neil Gaiman’s literature for children reaches for darker and more fully developed plots and characters. This trend helps move popular books for children away from Disneyfied reflections of life toward a more critical and thought-provoking literary experience at a young age.

If we were to take a brief look at a collection of popular children’s books from the past featuring similar themes to Gaiman’s work - supernatural creatures, magic, witches, or other unexplainable phenomenon, we might be drawn to such classics as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron, or C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. All of these books are widely considered to be classic tales from previous generations, and all have elements of the supernatural, from explicit witches and wizardry to the unseen resurrection of characters. All of these books have villains or evil characters, and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most prototypical of the entire genre. Yet, despite the proliferation of such ‘bad guys’ in these books, they do not seem to have the depth and realism of fright of contemporary works. These classic stories have clear designations to show that what is happening is make believe, which diminishes the realism and impact on their readers. Children who read these books can more easily convince themselves that what is happening is fictional, as the parallels to the main characters as they are going through such adventures are difficult to draw. In essence, most of these books are examples of mild escapist fiction, where the author provides a magical world for children to live in, but from which they can easily escape. This view is supported by fairy tale expert Jack Zipes in his essay “Are fairy tales still useful to Children?”: “...the very act of reading a fairy tale is an uncanny experience in that it separates the reader from the restrictions of reality from the onset...”.

Modern works by Neil Gaiman have some similar concepts (one can easily see the parallel of Coraline traveling through the passage into the Other-world and Alice’s trip through the looking-glass, into a mirror world with significant differences); however, they tend to use more realistic, frightening language, characters and scenes. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for example, even the climactic scene where Dorothy throws water on the witch and she melts away is hardly frightening:

This made Dorothy so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.
Instantly the wicked woman gave a loud cry of fear, and then, as Dorothy looked at her in wonder, the Witch began to shrink and fall away.
"See what you have done!" she screamed. "In a minute I shall melt away."
"I'm very sorry, indeed," said Dorothy, who was truly frightened to see the Witch actually melting away like brown sugar before her very eyes. (Baum, 99)

And contrast this with the first few sentences of Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately. The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet. (Gaiman, The Graveyard Book, 9)

This explicit, descriptive and immediate style brings a feeling of seriousness and impact that does not exist in the earlier example works. It is intentionally gritty, as is noted by Gaiman when discussing this passage: “... if you’re dealing with the kind of parents and teachers who only read the first line or the first half page, that’s probably not the best beginning for a children’s book one could hope for” (Gaiman, “Interview”).

It must also be said that, over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lot and Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.

Since the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Walt Disney Company has set the bar when it comes to children’s entertainment. They have achieved consistent success and acclaim, and continue doing so to this day. Their success in this arena comes via a very specific formula, usually termed “Disneyfication”, and is represented thematically by grand and great heroes, dark and evil villains, and a clear line between the two. Additionally, each discrete film has good triumphing over evil and people living happily ever after. If one takes any of the hero or prince characters from a Disney film and takes away their physical appearance, they are almost interchangeable paradigms of heroism. Disney even appears to reinforce this view intentionally in their films - as evidenced by its apparent reversal in Beauty And The Beast. The Beast (who is initially physically repulsive) becomes the hero, despite his appearance, and as stated in The Gospel According to Disney: "At the film's conclusion, the Beast does turn into Prince Charming - an auburn haired hunk resembling the model Fabio - the castle and its servants are restored, the music plays, and the grand ball commences" (Pinsky, 146).

The same can be said for any well-known Disney princess. Although each has a different physical appearance, they all are the same general character: a young woman in difficulty, who through her own ingenuity and help from her friends is able to triumph, and live happily ever after with the aforementioned prince. Although they are (age-wise) representative of the post-pubescent group, they are carefully represented as wholesome and pure, to keep the characters appealing to all, and to give no cause for any objection. Finn Mortensen observes of The Little Mermaid: “Disney films usually gift-wrap their product in sexuality as watered-down Freudian cliches. Even this is not done consistently, however, since the sexual instinct is toned down in the film version of the story” (Mortensen, 450). This characteristic is seen repeatedly. A perfect example of this is again found in Beauty and the Beast as Belle, the heroine, is represented very differently to the other females of her ‘peer group’ - “A very different kind of sexuality also makes an appearance in this movie, although in passing. Gaston’s empty-headed, young female admirers are portrayed with large breasts and low-cut dresses (in contrast to Belle’s more modest neckline)” (Pinsky, 146). Disney villains also fall into repetitive characterizations: they are selfish, wicked, unfettered by morals, often drawn with darker skin, hair or clothing, and are ultimately tragic (thus overtly reinforcing the moral that evil cannot win).

When we examine characters in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, we find some similarities to these elements, and some significant differences. The protagonist Nobody Owens (who is called Bod), starts as a baby, and we are introduced to him as an assassin murders the rest of his family, so he is taken in and raised by the ghosts and spirits in a graveyard. In a few ways he is similar to a Disney protagonist, in that he develops a decent moral compass. Yet, in other ways he is very different: he pursues very human desires and makes human mistakes; he does not aspire to greatness, or wealth, or living happily ever after. The book ends with him in his 15th year, having accomplished very little other than dispatching the assassin who killed his family and who was seeking him. He does not get the girl, he does not live happily ever after, and other than the death of the assassin - few plot lines are tied up.

The assassin antagonist, Jack, bears a few more parallels to Disney villains - he is a killer, certainly, but kills because it is his job, not out of a satisfaction (at first). He is immoral and wicked, and in the end is defeated. Despite being the primary antagonist, little is said about his origin or motivation, and he is more stereotype than fleshed out character. In fact, when the antagonist Jack assumes another identity while searching, the false identity comes across as much more human and authentic than his real identity. The true focus of the book, however, is Bod and his being raised by various denizens of the graveyard. As a character, Bod is much more real and less stereotypical than a Disney character. Despite his strange circumstances and home, he acts and feels as we would expect ourselves to do, he makes the same mistakes, asks the same questions, and suffers similar setbacks. Through the depth and reality of Bod’s character, the reader is able to delve into the difficulties that he faces, and be more thoughtful about his situations and choices, precisely because he is so relatable.

Other books by Gaiman have similar diversions from the “Disney Princess” archetype. If we examine Coraline Jones, the titular character of Gaiman’s Coraline, we see a young girl who is bored, and acts as we would expect an average 11-year-old bored girl to act - she complains, is picky, she annoys her parents, gets into trouble, and is smarter, wiser and braver than most people give her credit for. Because she is bored and mostly ignored by her parents, she desires deeper relationships (a very real and relatable trait which the antagonist Other Mother uses to draw her in). She has a firm grip on reality, and is able to (with little difficulty) see through the glamour presented, similar to that which is often on the surface of Disney stories. In the quote that opens this study, she demonstrates this ability: “I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted just like that, and it didn't mean anything? What then?” (Gaiman, Coraline, 112). She is able to see that, despite wanting things, to be given everything takes away the value of achievement. This alone shows that Coraline is vastly different than the Disney princesses, most of whom are more than willing to take a shortcut to get what they want, whether it is brought by a sea-witch or a fairy godmother, and only as a last resort will they fall back to the merits of their own actions. Coraline instead relies on her own wits, with only occasional help from others, and is the primary person responsible for both her difficulties, and final redemption. As a character, Coraline’s depth allows readers to relate to her, to her difficulties and victories, her wits and her strengths. In a clear homage to her self-reliance, we see that she is unwilling to sacrifice some of herself (as is represented by sewing buttons on her eyes) to achieve happiness with her Other Parents. This is in stark contrast to the Little Mermaid, where Ariel hesitates only briefly before agreeing to give up her voice in the hopes of snaring the prince. Young readers may find Coraline’s decisions to be more thought- provoking and authentic, and consider what to learn from her actions. Jack Zipes states: “Fairy tales have developed as means of communication that enable us to get a hold on problems that we have and ways to resolve them.” (“Interview with Jack Zipes: Jack Zipes on Fairy Tales”)

The heroine of Wolves In The Walls, 6-year-old Lucy, shares many of these traits with Coraline. She is also precocious, thoughtful, and seeks more of her parents’ attention. When the wolves come out of the walls and the grown-ups are considering far-fetched schemes, it is down- to-earth Lucy who thinks through the problem logically and comes up with a likely plan. Additionally, she provides the impetus and bravery needed to drive the family through the solution. As an interesting side theme, Lucy’s plan and desires are primarily motivated by selfishness in the beginning - she attempts to go back into her house not to reclaim it for her family, but instead to get her favourite stuffed pig-puppet that was left behind in the commotion. Lucy is represented as a logical, clear-thinking example of a child. The adults in the story have their judgement clouded by many preconceived notions and thoughts, as evidenced by the repetition of the line: “You know what they say: If the wolves come out of the walls, then it's all over.” (Gaiman, Wolves In The Walls, 9). Lucy spends time attempting to deconstruct this notion by drilling down into it, asking who the mysterious “they” are, and what is meant by “it’s all over”, but the adults have been programmed to take it at face value, without question. Children are filled with curiosity, and will easily relate to Lucy and her quest to know “why”, as well as her inability to make the adults aware of the goings-on inside the house and its walls until it is too late.

These works by Neil Gaiman present deeper and different characterizations of the protagonists and, moreover, these fleshed-out characters are ones to whom children can relate and in whom they can see parts of themselves. A character who struggles with similar moral dilemmas, family dysfunction, struggles and similar emotions is much more relatable than a shallow Disney prototype. The ability to look critically at a character and situation is expanded when that character and situation has a depth and realism to which a reader can relate.

The major themes in all of the previously mentioned books are alike. They represent the same themes that we see in almost all children’s literature: coming of age, self-reliance, good versus evil, and the development of relationships between kids and adults. While at a grand level the themes are comparable, (no one would question that good defeats evil when Coraline defeats the beldam in Coraline, or in Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron when Gwydion and the army finally defeat King Morgant) we must consider if the major themes have been simplified (in the same fashion as a Disney film) in order to cater to the expected audience. First, consider the theme of Good versus Evil. In most Disney films, the villain is portrayed as wholly evil, unrepentant and unredeemable. If we look at one of the primary villains of the 1966 Newbery Honor book The Black Cauldron, we find a good candidate for such an antagonist: King Morgant - he is a traitor, and intends to lure the heroes to their depths. Yet, although he attempts to bring about the destruction of the others, he is a complex character, with both faults and good traits. The refusal to see him as entirely evil is evidenced by the conversation between Taran and Gwydion - “ ‘It is easy to judge evil unmixed,’ replied Gwydion. ‘But, alas, in most of us good and bad are closely woven as the threads on a loom; greater wisdom than mine is needed for the judging’ ” (Alexander, 170). Here we can see that the concepts of good vs evil go much deeper than a Disney stereotype, and the intent of the author is to have the audience consider that depth. In Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book we are also presented with an atypical antagonist. Jack Frost, the assassin, is certainly evil due to his actions, but it is difficult to classify him as malicious. He appears to be a more typical villain, as he is clearly unrepentant, and goes to his death attempting to finish his evil deeds. The good vs evil theme here is thus fulfilled, and although it is very scary, it is (thematically) less deep.

A second theme that should be considered is the characterization of children and the child-adult relationship. In Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves In The Walls, we are shown what might be termed a “typical” relationship between Lucy, a 6 year old, and her mother, father, and older brother. Although exaggerated to show the point, the relationship is characterized by Lucy being largely ignored or dismissed by her older family members, even when she is right. The relationship develops slightly when she is proven to be right, and slightly more when Lucy solves the crisis facing the family. Once the crisis is resolved however, the adult/child dynamic goes back to an even worse state - she does not even bother to tell her parents and brother when she suspects something even worse. In a perverted way, this fulfills part of Henry Giroux’s vision of a Disneyfied theme, as he states: “Disney films combine an ideology of enchantment and aura of innocence in narrating stories that help children to understand who they are, what societies are about, and what it means to construct a world of play and fantasy in an adult environment.” (Giroux, 65). Although Lucy sheds part of her innocence, it is reflected by an understanding of who children are and their place in an adult environment - that they will largely be ignored by adults, especially when inconvenient. If we compare this to the child/adult relationships we see in the 1953 Newbery Honor book Charlotte’s Web, we see a different outcome. In Web, we see a little girl, Fern Avery, pleading with her father not to kill a runt pig. The father acquiesces only after an emotional outburst from Fern, and although he does not kill the pig, he stays the act primarily and paternalistically for the goal of teaching his daughter a lesson: "You go back to the house and I will bring the runt when I come in. I'll let you start it on a bottle, like a baby. Then you'll see what trouble a pig can be." (White, 2) . In most contexts, the adult/child relationship in Charlotte’s Web is much more traditional in the sense that the adult knows more and attempts to guide the child into a more mature understanding of the realities of caring for an animal, farming, and the difficulties therein.

Lastly, we should consider the theme of self reliance. In Coraline, we find that the primary protagonist, 11-year-old Coraline Jones is used to being self-reliant, and in fact derives a great deal of her self-image from her own reliance. When Coraline refuses to agree to the Other Mother’s request to sew buttons on her eyes, and returns to her real home, her parents are kidnapped. Coraline lives for several days on her own, fixing her own food and surviving without her parents. She takes it upon herself to rescue her parents, primarily alone. In a similar way, we see the heroine of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH being thrust into a state of self- reliance due to her husband’s death. In this case, we find that Mrs Frisby is forced into self- reliance, as she has no other choice, in the same way that Coraline is when her parents are taken. From this we can draw that the authors’ choices to deeply communicate the message of self- reliance is intentional, implying people can grow to make their own choices. Again, we can see a similar idea voiced by Jack Zipes: “The second occurs within the tale itself and indicates a socialization process and acquisition of values for participation in a society where the protagonist has more power of determination.” (Zipes, “Are Fairy Tales Still Useful to Children?”). These themes are markedly different to the Disney idea, where an individual rarely to accomplishes major things without help, both supernatural and other.

To draw these into a final contrast, material from the past exhibits both Disneyfied (such as child/adult relationships Charlotte’s Web) and non-Disneyfied (displayed as the good vs evil in The Black Cauldron) themes. Neil Gaiman’s books, however appear to show non-Disneyfied themes almost exclusively, except when it is expressed as an intentional perversion or parody. By exploring characters in a more realistic and deep fashion, Gaiman utilizes the need for children to relate to and evaluate the behavior of peers. Similarly, by developing specific plot lines that explore non-Disneyfied versions of major themes, he is able to draw in children on many levels. By engaging them with more relatable and interesting plots and characters, he offers them a deeper and richer literary experience. Gaiman’s characters and descriptive locations need to be called out specifically. As a great deal of the ability to absorb, adjust and connect with these literary personae comes from their realism, it may be concluded that the more palpable and similar a character appears, the more likely the reader will be able to connect to that character, and thus to the deeper meanings presented: “The reader is forever rummaging and scavenging through the pages for a glimpse of self...[f]or the pleasure of finding a closer relationship of the outer world to the inner world and vice versa.” (Martin, 18)

By providing tween children with this more demanding literature to enjoy, ponder, and learn from, we do them the courtesy of treating them as they should be - as capable individuals who can think, consider and evaluate. By treating children as lesser beings, needing their literary and entertainment experiences watered down for understanding, we do them a vast disservice, regardless of how commercially successful Disney portrayals may be.



Works Cited

Alexander, Lloyd. The Black Cauldron. Henry Holt & Company. 2013. Apple iBookstore E-Book

Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz. Public Domain. 1900. Apple iBookstore E-Book.

Dixon, John. “Becoming a Maturer Reader”. The Reading Teacher. 40.8. (1987): 761-765. PDF File.

Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. HarperCollins. 2012. Apple iBookstore E-Book.

Gaiman, Neil. Interview by Kate Hodges. Bizarre Magazine. Web, 30 April, 2013. http://www.bizarremag.com/film-and-music/interviews/7560/neil_gaiman.html

Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. HarperCollins. 2008. Apple iBookstore E-Book.

Gaiman, Neil. The Wolves in the Walls. HarperCollins. 2005. Print.

Giroux, Henry. “Animating Youth: The Disneyfication of Children’s Culture”. Socialist Review. 94.3 (1994): 23-55. PDF File.

Martin, Bill Jr. "The making of a reader: a personal narrative." In Children's Literature in the Reading Program, Bernice E. Cullinan (ed.), Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 1987. Print.

Mortensen, Finn Hauberg. “The Little Mermaid: Icon and Disneyfication”. Scandinavian Studies. 80.4 (Winter, 2008): 437-454. PDF File.

O’Brien, Robert C. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats Of NIMH. Scholastic Book Services, 1971. Print.

Pinsky, Mark. The Gospel According To Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust: Mark I. Westminster John Knox Print. 2004. Print.

Rudd, David. “An Eye for an I: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Questions of Identity”. Children's Literature in Education. 39.3 (2008): 159-168. PDF File.

Sutton, Roger. “It’s Good To Be Gaiman”. School Library Journal. 55.3 (March, 2009): 30-32. PDF File.

White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. Harper And Brothers, 1952. Print.

Zipes, Jack. Are fairy tales still useful to Children? Web. 17 April, 2013. http://www.artofstorytellingshow.com/2008/06/29/jack-zipes-fairy-tales/

Zipes, Jack. “Interview with Jack Zipes: Jack Zipes on Fairy Tales”. Interviewed by Daisy Banks. Web. 17 April, 2013. http://fivebooks.com/interviews/jack-zipes-on-fairy-tales


Thomas Byrne

Volume 17, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, November 2014

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"Examining the Works of Neil Gaiman: Children Don’t Need Their Literature Dumbo’d Down.
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