J.G. Keely's Reviews > Coraline

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
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May 13, 2007

it was ok
bookshelves: fantasy, illustrated, reviewed, uk-and-ireland
Read in December, 2005

I actually picked up a signed copy at a local shop when Gaiman and I were both living in Minnesota. I've read a lot of Gaiman, and while appreciate that he is always a conscious, active writer, his stories sometimes fall flat for me.

They always work on the principle of a small person trapped in a large, unknown world. There are plenty of great examples of this story type, and Gaiman has been steadily working through them. He took inspiration from Fairy Tales in Stardust, from European myth in American Gods, and African myth in Anansi Boys. Though Morpheus was no small man, the individual story arcs dealt with normal folks. Sandman and Good Omens worked off of Christian mythos, while Neverwhere created myths from modern symbols.

If Neverwhere is a rewrite of Alice in Wonderland, Coraline is in some ways an even closer take on Carroll, except that here, Gaiman is exploring a more overtly frightening world, evoking Gothic ghost stories. Unlike his other stories, Gaiman has less to draw on here. He is not bringing in specific myths, but rather creating his own symbols. Since he is not bringing in the many and varied elements that mark most of his tales, Coraline sets a much barer stage.

When he does bring in mythological elements, he always put his own spin on them, so he cannot be faulted for a lack of creative force. Indeed, he is at his most engaging when he is exploring and subverting various world mythologies, of which he is well-versed.

Even in the less mythologized Neverwhere, he drew on the visual imagery and history of London itself, a great city which traces its roots from before Rome, and is not without its own legends. By eschewing any particular tradition in Coraline, Gaiman has little to play with. He has nothing to subvert, nothing to vaguely reference. He cannot play upon our expectations.

All this tracks back to the reason that Gaiman explores these mythologies in the first place: his interest in writing about storytelling itself. Each time he writes, he places himself in a tradition, recognizing how the ancients used myth and symbol to create stories that instruct, inspire, and surprise.

Coraline does not explore its own origins. It does not display the genre savvy play of Gaiman's other work. It is not an exploration of the ghost story, nor of 'Through the Looking-Glass'. It is not a deconstruction of the Gothic.

It is a simple little tale, and not without its charm. I found little frightening about it, simply because there was little that was either unexpected or psychologically gripping. The most interesting element was the way he played with how we learn about identity.

There is a point in childhood when we suspect that there us something that makes up identity beyond simply the appearance or form. The idea that a parent or friend could be replaced by a doppelganger is inherently terrifying. However, Gaiman does not produce a new twist on doppelgangers or changelings.

Neither did the portrayal utilize surprise or subtlety to develop an unsettling mood. Rather, he presented overtly frightening or alien elements, bolstered by the characters' reactions.

But it's not frightening to simply show scary things. Hearing a strange noise in the woods is not the same as being told that a character hears a strange noise in the woods. It only becomes frightening when the vividness of the description or the realism of the character's psychology allows us to tap into that sense of fear.

This little story could have made a passable entry in a horror story collection, but is not original enough to stand on its own. I found this rather odd, since Gaiman is entirely capable of creating frightening stories, as evidenced by the fairy tale rewrite 'Snow, Glass, Apples' (from 'Smoke and Mirrors').

He has been frightening, disturbing, and unusual elsewhere, but here, I found little to speak of his creative flair.
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Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (last edited Mar 09, 2009 07:33AM) (new)

Kelly Before I make this comment, I should admit that I have only seen the movie rather than read the book.

But here it is anyway: Your negative opinion of this book appears to be due to the fact that it isn't particularly original? Have I got that right? If so, I just want to ask, aren't there other reasons that the book might be beautiful and worth more than two stars? Perhaps I am biased because I adored the presentation of Coraline in the movie, and how exquisitely and yet at times brutally they were able to capture the mindset of a lonely, imaginative child, the outsize fears and deformities that overshadow everything and make life seem so daunting.

I thought it was a beautifully done homage to the Victorian gothic ghost story. It reminded me of the tortured exploration of the edges of sanity James indulged in with Turn of the Screw, but through an innocent child's eyes. I don't see anything particularly wrong with the idea of doing that, if it is well done.

Have you seen the movie? If so, is it less well done in the book? Too trite? I'm curious- since I was planning on reading it.


J.G. Keely I didn't see the movie, no, so I can't speak to that.

It wasn't a lack of originality I objected to in Coraline. Indeed, I appreciate many of Gaiman's books despite the fact that they are grounded deeply in earlier traditions.

Coraline is an original work, much more so than any of his other books. I found little engaging in Coraline because when Gaiman did not have a wealth of mythology to draw on, the world he ended up creating was rather small and bare.

I can appreciate that a streamlined, straightforward story can be very effective, especially a ghost story. However, I did not find that Coraline was particularly elegant, as much as it was simplistic.

Creating your own world is much more difficult than drawing on the wealth of imagery of your predecessors. Compared to the rich tapestries Gaiman wove by using and subverting other mythologies, Coraline lacked depth.

Truth is stranger than fiction because its difficult to imagine what is really possible. Likewise, what scares us is rarely what we expected to scare us. I found Coraline too predictable to be unsettling.

It does draw on the same sorts of fears that James does, and the unreality of childhood. Those were the most interesting aspects of Coraline. However, even those images and ideas which were interesting in and of themselves were not presented in a powerful or unsettling way.

The original ideas were rather scant, and I never saw Gaiman translate them into engaging prose. One of the most difficult tasks for an author is to try to create a subtle, eerie mood while presenting their own, new ideas.

While the opposing forces of subtlety and surprise came together in 'The Turn of The Screw', and in Gaiman's own 'Snow, Glass, Apples', I never felt that they harmonized in Coraline.


Alexandra Abigail wrote: "Kelly: I hope that you do read the book! I enjoyed Coraline far more than the single adult title by Gaiman that I have thus far tried (the first volume of the Sandman graphic-novel series). While i..."
Abigail, I suggest trying "Neverwhere" and/or "Stardust", I enjoyed those very much.




message 4: by Kelly (new)

Kelly It does draw on the same sorts of fears that James does, and the unreality of childhood. Those were the most interesting aspects of Coraline. However, even those images and ideas which were interesting in and of themselves were not presented in a powerful or unsettling way.

Now that you've explained (thank you), the only thing I disagree with other than on a simple opinion level is that he never manages to create an "unsettling" image. I suppose I'd really need to read the book rather than just have seen the movie, but the movie was /plenty/ unsettling. The shadows and shapes and representations of Coraline's horrors and dreams. But again, should read instead of see, so I'll shut up.

Abigail, I would also suggest Neverwhere to you. I think you'll enjoy it. My personal favorite of his is American Gods, but Neverwhere is a close second. I know you've got soo many books to get to before you get back to an author you didn't enjoy, but the next time you feel adventurous, hopefully you give it a shot.



J.G. Keely Neverwhere was a favorite of mine, though I've read Sandman and Anansi Boys since then and I'd have to say they are now my favorite Gaiman books. I was very surprised at how funny and quirky Anansi Boys was, though I did listen to the book on tape, which is narrated brilliantly by comedian Lenny Henry.

American Gods is good too, as is Black Orchid, an earlier comic work.

Maybe I'll get a chance to see Coraline at some point. I think the images he used could have been frightening, and it is easier to create unsettling imagery in a film than by getting the reader to imagine it through writing. Thanks for the thoughts, everyone.


Afryst Thank you for this review. It is well-written and raised some interesting questions, though I disagree with your conclusions.

I suppose my objections boil down to one salient fact; this is a children's book, a short story for the younger reader. Such a reader does not have the literary experience to recognise African cultural references or the urban mythology of London. Though his other works show a fondness for them, to include such details here would distract the typical child and muddy what I found to be a refreshingly clear style.

You mentioned that Gaiman constructs a bleak stage for himself in "Coraline". This was something I enjoyed as being wonderfully unequivocal at the time. It created an otherworldly landscape that was more intimidating for it's lack of contemporary touchstones. This greatly contributed to the air of isolation and abandonment the book conjures, emotions a child would naturally experience during these events.

While you pointed out the subtle terror the doppleganger inspires, you criticised the author for not referencing other works in a such a tradition. However, I believe this terror is universal, not dependant or even enchanced by it's cultural connotations. It's presence in so many diverse literary traditions seems to testify to this. You also suggested that Gaiman references other Gothic stories here but I believe that he intends to address many of the same themes that characterise the style, rather than previous examples of this genre.

Though there have been many complex and astounding works written in the style of fairy tale and other children's forms, the fact remains that terms like "genre savvy" have little place in a criticism of a work intended for those below a certain age or sophistication. Every book of this type could be some child's first experience with the genre or indeed with recreational literature. If you examine "Coraline" on it's own merits, rather than the most recent inheritor of an ancient tradition, I believe it fares much better (and deserves to).

I would love to hear any thoughts you might have on this.


J.G. Keely I have always rejected the notion that children's lit should be simplified or dumbed-down. Though I wasn't familiar with opera, classical music, or silver screen movie stars as a child, this never prevented me from appreciating the Looney Tunes cartoons that featured them.

In addition to the entertainment they provided, they also introduced me to things I might not otherwise have discovered. Likewise, though I may not have recognized all the meanings of Carroll's word-play as a child, I was drawn in by the Alice's intriguing depth.

Children are not so gullible, and they recognize when adults try to feed them an oversimplified world. I always felt gravely insulted as a child when adults thought I would fall for such overt tricks.

Oversimplified books are like sending a child into a room with a single coin: you know they will find the coin, but there is nothing else for them. I prefer children's books that are like an attic full of curios: you don't know what the child will find, but there is a great wealth of possibility for them.

I don't think children's lit is easier to write than adult lit. It is usually harder, because an author cannot rely on mutual experiences. They must present the idea so it is understandable even if the child has not directly experienced the situations the author is describing.

When I mentioned the 'bleak stage', I didn't mean the story's elegance. It is rather streamlined, which is often a boon for a horror story. However, I meant that the story had little mystery or depth to it.

The 'other' world he presented was too simple and predictable, there was no lingering mystery to brood on, and so the horror of the story didn't build. A writer does not need to utilize older traditions to create depth, but that is the way Gaiman has always created his unsettling worlds.

Truth is stranger than fiction, so it is easier to create a bizarre world by taking cues from other writers and traditions instead of creating everything whole-cloth. While some authors can create original visions, like H.P. Lovecraft, this requires a very unusual mind. Gaiman's world in Coraline does not bear the same level of originality.

While the otherness of the doppelganger can certainly be terrifying without capitalizing on other traditions, I don't feel Gaiman's presentation was eerie enough in itself to pull this off. Gaiman's style has always been marked by his genre-savvy placement in the tradition, except in this work.

That he failed to replace this usual depth with some other original aspect is not surprising, since this is his first foray outside of allusive retellings. These allusions do not have to be the center of the story. They can make up a hinted background which would in no way interfere with a child's understanding or enjoyment.

There are many works, from Pixar films to The Hobbit which have something to offer to any viewer, no matter their sophistication. This can be done by a good writer without dumbing-down or losing the story in lengthy explanations.

Whether or not Gaiman desired Coraline to be the inheritor of a tradition, it still is one. Every work operates as a critique of the genre the writer is participating in, because writers get their ideas and inspirations from other works.

Even authors who do not acknowledge this tradition are a part of it, since denial does not equate freedom from cultural influence. This is especially true for Gaiman, whose oeuvre shows an obsession with the history and methods of storytelling.

Coraline could have used Gaiman's signature intertextuality to create an homage to the horror story. Gaiman didn't do this. It could also have been an original enough vision to stand on its own as a simple, creepy story. However, Gaiman is not Lovecraft, Carroll, or Gorey.

He did show some original ideas, and a sleek, streamlined story. It wasn't a bad story, but I found nothing remarkable in it; especially compared to Gaiman's body of other impressive works, including some quite effective horror.

Thank you very much for your comment. I appreciate that you shared your views with me: it's nice to know I'm not reviewing in a vacuum. I hope I have cleared up some of my views. Thanks again.


message 8: by Afryst (last edited Mar 23, 2009 05:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Afryst Thank you for addressing my remarks so promptly. Having read your response, I do feel I need to clarify my opinions somewhat.

There are many works that use literary or cultural references as a shorthand, adorning themselves with the robes of other writers. They can be devastatingly evocative, adding resonance to a piece. As a technique, it is extremely widespread and often effective. Of course, in the hands of the wrong writer, it can be clumsy and inelegant. In short, it is merely a technique, one of many tools available for constructing a novel. As you acknowledged, Gaiman is perfectly capable of employing this technique to weave existing mythologies into new roles. That he has not done so in "Coraline" is a decision, not an oversight, possibly because such references would be lost on the intended recipients. It seems our views essentially boil down to a disagreement over this decision.

You say you would prefer to give a child access to an attic full of curios and oddities, rather than a single attraction. This is wonderful imagery, but it seems to me that when a child is presented with such an array of inexplicable objects, the things it's most likely to find are confusion and boredom. It is a remarkable achievement indeed when a book leads you to further your own education or explore fascinating new subjects. However, it's usually a highly individual response, rather than the intended message of the piece. As a little aside, I know of engineers and designers who have, with today's technology, duplicated Q's gadgetry from the Bond books and films they loved as a child. Though their careers may have been inspired in part by Fleming, it's hardly a worthwhile standard by which to judge his work. Likewise, attributing a love of opera or silent movies to the Looney Tunes is a bit tenuous (though I remember "What's Opera, Doc?" moved me as a child too). Remember, the Looney Tunes were initially displayed in silent movie theatres, frequented more often by adults than children.

You are correct that a work must by necessity be judged within the context of it's genre (a jury of it's peers, you might say). However, to criticise the novel itself for failing to acknowledge these works, for a refusal to employ this self-referential technique, is as bewildering as complaining about an absence of alliteration. In this case, I believe the genre we should primarily be concerned with is children's fiction, rather than horror. Political writers or advertisers would side with me here, I think. Anyone who writes with the intention of communicating a certain message to a specific audience will know the value of tailoring your work to the language and expectations of that audience. Unfortunately for us both, not everything is written to pander to the cognoscenti. Put simply, since Gaiman was not writing "an homage to the horror story", that he has not ended up with one is a strange criticism to level.

You make many excellent points in your review regarding Gaiman's attempt to create a new mythos, a magic that does not owe any great allegiance to an existing culture. How successfully he manages this is debatable, but this, the story's own merits, seems the correct area to focus on. To summarise, I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that children's literature should never be "dumbed-down". What I take issue with is your assertion that deliberately eschewing a particular literary technique qualifies as dumbing down. I hope this makes my views a little clearer.


J.G. Keely While allusion is a literary technique, intertextuality is not. All authors write from their experiences, imitating authors they respect, and avoiding the problems they see in others. The idea that any work could be wholly new and original is as naive now as when the dadaists pursued it.

There are those authors, like Blake or Lovecraft, who are able to create an original vision, but they still have their place in the tradition, they can still be traced to their influences.

The most difficult thing about trying to create an original world is manufacturing enough depth to make that world seem both convincing, and engrossing. Blake and Lovecraft were both aided in this by their respective chemical imbalances.

Other authors, like Tolkien, create depth by drawing inspiration from an untapped tradition. Though Tolkien didn't rely on allusion, he did utilize the style and techniques of the Norse eddas to create an original, believably deep world.

This has also been Gaiman's technique in all of his other works, and often to great effect. I didn't mean to suggest that he was required to use the technique of mythological allusion, but that this story is conspicuous for its absence.

By eschewing this, Gaiman moves entirely out of his element. He does not replace this lost depth with an original vision, since he is not brain-damaged Blake or paranoid phobic Lovecraft.

He is also not required to make a conscientious, genre savvy tale, though again, this has always been the focus of his writing, before and after Coraline. However, if he is using the same techniques, evoking the same 'themes that characterize the style', and is familiar with the genre and its traditions, how is this story separated from that genre?

It need not be an homage to be deliberately intertextual. Any author who tries to deny their influences disregards the way we learn to write.

As to the discussion of literature for children, an array of complex, different cultural elements can often leave a child bored and confused, as you said. However, this has more to do with the skill of the writer than the array of elements presented.

Writing for children requires making the story entertaining and understandable without relying on shared experience. This does not mean removing any elements which they might not be familiar with, any more than we should remove elements most adults are not familiar with. How are we (or our children) supposed to learn new things if they aren't presented to us?

A good writer can be entertaining and engaging without sacrificing complex elements. Pandering to the cognoscenti isn't necessary, though inclusion of edifying elements for people of any level of understanding is always desirable.

The fact that the Looney Tunes were written by adults, and enjoyed by other adults is not important. This doesn't change the fact that they remain enjoyable, entertaining, and engaging to children, not despite their complexity, but because of it.

Likewise, I see no reason to underestimate the effect that they had on the cultural understanding of opera, classical music, literature, or film. Despite the fact that 99% of people will never read Moby Dick, almost everyone knows the story and themes from other cultural sources. Children learn more about history and culture from Mad Magazine and the Simpsons than from school.

Gaiman didn't need to use mythic allusion in his story, even though that has always been his strength. He didn't need to conscientiously use techniques and genre recognition to create an intertextual commentary, though this has marked his other works before and since Coraline.

He could have, instead, created an original vision. Though this is very difficult to do, it's easier to do in a short story than in a longer work. However, his stripped-down original world was not remarkable when compared to Carroll's, Dunsany's, or Dahl's.

I do think that if Gaiman had done any one of these things, he would have made a worthwhile and interesting story. The reason I harped on allusion and genre savvy is because that's what Gaiman is known for.

No one mentions Michael Jordan's baseball career without talking about his basketball career, because it's difficult to understand why someone who was so good at one thing would abandon it for mediocrity.

Bully for Gaiman if he wants to branch out into a different style. I was impressed at the humorous tone in Anansi Boys, though Gaiman has nevere been known for comedy. Contrarily, Coraline reminded me how little experience he has writing outside of his usual intertextual, mythological style.

I've often lamented that Gaiman is not enough of an eccentric. He is the consummate thoughtful, studious Englishman, and the madmen in his stories, from Neverwhere to Sandman, tend more to the polite and silly than the disturbing.

There are the occasional exceptions, and these often mark the high points of Gaiman's creativity. I suppose the reason I keep bringing up 'Snow, Glass, Apples' is because while it was savvy and alluded to myth, its strength was actually the tone, an aspect of the structure and language use.

What strikes me as peculiar about Coraline is that its unremarkable not only compared to other authors, but to Gaiman's own other works. This is why I kept bringing up the techniques from his other stories; not because he needed to use them, but because this story was so conspicuously shallow, and I couldn't help but compare it to his other, more effective works.

Well, that's enough rambling from me. Time to cut off. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and for helping me rethink my own.


Clouds I don't always agree but I'm always interested to hear your thoughts, Keely.

Please, keep on sharing :-)


J.G. Keely Will do, thanks for the comment.


message 12: by KS (new) - rated it 3 stars

KS Selvakumar I finished reading the book a little while ago, and it left me with this niggling, unsatisfied feeling, something on which I couldn't put my finger on. Your review (and the following discussion thread) has in some sense opened up new dimensions of the story for me. Thanks for the review and your detailed comments.


J.G. Keely No problem, glad to hear you found the discussion useful.


Carmen Great review.


message 15: by Rocko52 (last edited Sep 07, 2015 11:33PM) (new)

Rocko52 Hey Keely, I've commented before recently on your Hellboy review, but I thought this would be a more appropriate place to ask this question.

You see, I have a friend who thinks vehemently that children's entertainment should be lighter & simplified. He is convinced that children are "too stupid," and unless they are "special children" they won't be interested in or understand more complicated works. He thinks some, but very few, children can be challenged, thinks that most already scare too easily or have problems enough with the little things of their lives.

I've tried talking about how it's good for children to experience things in a relatively safe environment, to view alien emotions and concepts, to try and let them develop & see things they wouldn't otherwise. How sadness, pain, regret, aren't necessarily bad emotions to expose kids to via literature and film, but can help kids grow. I've also shown him you Alice review and a few selected quotes from this page to bolster my argument, (I really love your work ha) but here are some of his responses and I'd love to hear thoughts you have or advice for me to try and convince him.

"tis sounds like he is going off his experiences, and he sounds like he was a smart child, children aren't insulted by adults feeding them a simplified world, most children don't understand what that sentence would mean let alone be feeling it

and we have to define what children mean, which you have failed to do, it sounds like you want to be taking away children's innocence starting at age 6

if that's what you and this guy mean

that's really sad

if you have a child that can comprehend things at a young age and doesn't want to accept simple silly stories then go ahead and challenge them, most children can't be so challenged

that's why I say it's not a good thing to be challenging them and teaching them how messed up the world is at young ages since most children can't understand can't comprehend and are innocent and won't be innocent for very long anyway so why would you want to take away their innocence

even the ones that are special and can be challenged, you should wait as long as you can because innocence is so fragile and needs to be preserved

that's all I'm trying to say

if you want to go and challenge kids that can't understand and start crying at the scary puppets, go ahead, but kids crying is a sign to stop

that's all"

Those are his points and any thoughts by you would be greatly appreciated. His references to "he" & "him" were referring to you after I showed him your review & quotes. If you're wondering about the "scary puppets" comment, this conversation (although we have chatted about this before) started because we were arguing the merits of "Labyrinth," which quickly reminded me of the recent discussion in the Hellboy review. Thanks for listening Keely, I really can't say enough how much I love your stuff!


J.G. Keely "I'd love to hear thoughts you have or advice for me to try and convince him"

Sure, I can suggest a few things.

"children aren't insulted by adults feeding them a simplified world"

In my experience, children are definitely insulted by this--and not just gifted children, but all children. Children learn to mistrust us because we lie to them, we try to hide the world from them. Go into any kindergarten class and you'll see how skeptical children can be of their teachers, and adult intentions.

After all, adults are always saying one thing, but meaning another--we say 'this shot won't hurt' to prevent the kid from cringing, but it does hurt. We do it for their own good, of course, and because we don't want to see them in pain, but even a very small child learns a great deal about manipulation in those early years.

You might think of something as simple as lying to a child about how babies are made. The first problem is that, when they recognize the lie, it reinforces their sense that adults can't be trusted.

Secondly, it sends the message that the body is something you don't talk about, something that you should be ashamed of, that its most basic functions, things we take great joy in (like having a child) are somehow fundamentally bad. A child is going to internalize that, it's going to make them feel shameful about their own bodies. I mean, if not even adults can talk about it, it must be really bad.

Of course, I'm not suggesting sitting down with a book on gynecology and going into all the nitty gritty details--because that won't make sense to the child, and will just confuse them. Rather, you have to find a way to communicate it to them in a straightforward way that will make sense to them, and their limited worldview.

It's like how, if you want to teach a child math, you don't immediately pull down the differential calculus textbook--you start from their current understanding and work your way up as best you can.

"most children don't understand what that sentence would mean let alone be feeling it"

Your friend has this backwards: people feel first, and comprehend second. It's entirely possible to get a feeling that you don't understand--indeed, that's what much of childhood consists of. A baby can't understand the sentence 'I'm hungry', yet it's perfectly capable of feeling hungry.

"innocence is so fragile and needs to be preserved"

A lot of his argument seems to be based around the old idea of childhood 'innocence'--I'd be curious to see him define what innocence is, and why we should preserve it. What is good about it? Why should we value it?

I mean, it's also funny because culturally, human beings have gone back and forth on the idea of 'childhood innocence' over the centuries. Sometimes, we assume that they are little beasts, selfish and violent and ruled by emotion, and we have to 'tame' them and teach them to be proper human beings--while other times, they are supposed to be pure and good by default.

"I say it's not a good thing to be challenging them and teaching them how messed up the world is"

Well, no one is suggesting that we strap children into chairs and force them to watch footage of WWII, a la A Clockwork Orange--rather, it's about giving them many different views of how people are, and how the world works.

A child models their behavior on the stories they are told, so if we want our children to be healthy, to be able to deal with their emotions and handle interpersonal conflicts, then we need to present stories where the characters demonstrate those different techniques.

For instance, we often give children stories where people you disagree with are simply 'bad' by nature--especially common in Disney movies. We don't invite the children to understand why these people act this way, or to look for other methods of conflict resolution besides yelling and violence and high emotions. By giving them these 'simple' stories, we are training them to think of any person they don't get along with as just 'bad', instead of as another person with their own personal thoughts and desires.

He talks about waiting to introduce children to the real world, but they already have to deal with the real world, every day. If you just feed a child bland stories where everyone gets along, that child is immediately going to recognize the difference out on the playground, where other kids fight and get into disagreements all the time.

This is where they learn the interpersonal skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Studies have suggested that children who miss out on socialization in preschool have a much lower chance of learning how to deal with other people, and how to resolve conflicts, and as such are much more likely to end up in prison.

Keeping them 'safe and innocent' by avoiding the sometimes unpleasant interactions at the playground might mean stunting them for the rest of their lives. Sometimes people are going to get upset, and fight, and cry, and we can't avoid that. It's much better to introduce children to that in a safe learning environment, to let them try things and make mistakes and figure it out--and books are a very safe environment indeed.

It's not about filling children's books with death and violence and erotic imagery--they get plenty of that from pop culture--it's about presenting a strange world, a world the child has to think about and come to terms with on their own, rather than simply feeding them rote answers that conflict with every social and cultural experience they have.

"if you want to go and challenge kids that can't understand and start crying at the scary puppets, go ahead"

Wow, it's hard for me to imagine a kid that would be scared by watching Labyrinth--sure, it has a few more intense moments, but it would take a very sheltered child not to be able to watch that.

I mean, a child might hunker down and cover their eyes during some parts--but that's not a problem, indeed, that's part of what makes a movie like that great. The child experiences something scary, that they don't like, and so they act to minimize it (perhaps holding the hand of a trusted adult), and then, once it's over, they realize that, even when something is scary, they can hunker down and get through it and afterwards, everything's okay again. That's a vital lesson for children to learn.

"kids crying is a sign to stop"

So, if a kid wants a toy and throws a tantrum, that's a sign we should give in and buy it for them? If they cry because they are scared of going to the doctor when they're sick, that means we shouldn't take them?

Kids (like adults) cry for many reasons--it's a natural part of how we deal with the world, and with our own emotions. We don't have to rush in and 'save' the child every time they cry. If we did that, it would only weaken them, making them feel more frightened and dependent, because they don't learn to deal with it on their own.

Sometimes, if a kid falls down and is startled, and comes to you crying, you just shrug, and say it's alright, and send them off. It doesn't mean they should stop playing--and you also don't run over and scoop them up any time they cry and 'save' them.

Kids need to learn a sense of autonomy, and while that doesn't mean stranding them in the woods with a knife, it does mean giving them many small, safe opportunities to experiment and act out on their own--because that's the only way they will learn.

"Thanks for listening Keely, I really can't say enough how much I love your stuff!"

No problem, I'm glad you've found some of my writing useful. Hope this helps.


message 17: by Rocko52 (last edited Sep 08, 2015 02:49PM) (new)

Rocko52 Thanks a lot Keely! Those are some good points better articulated than what I could say, although they do express my thoughts on the subject.

His earlier arguments were merely that many kids scare too easily, that the themes of developing sexuality in Labyrinth (which I pointed out as a positive) were inappropriate, that "children don't want to have scary dark stories read to them that they can't appreciate," and interestingly, to me, "parents don't want crying sad confused children" later echoed with "you can't say that, since most kids are scared easily - parents don't want crying or confused children." Interesting because his point seems more concerned what the parents want. He also repeatedly said that kids are "very stupid" or "too stupid." When I brought up how old fairy tales were a lot harsher & layered, he responded with "that's why we made them lighter." Ultimately he justified this by arguing he "knows" children better than I do because he sees them on a regular basis as his mom teaches music lessons. But to me he just comes off as gravely misunderstanding and underestimating kids.

I'm really close to this guy and I respect his opinions but this is a place where we seriously part ways I'd say. Still thanks for taking your time to read my comment and give a thorough reasoned response. I appreciate it. (That awkward moment where you debate between a period and an exclamation mark - the fear that a period is too subdued & ungrateful while an exclamation will come off as overly or perhaps falsely excited...ha)


J.G. Keely Rocko52 said: "that the themes of developing sexuality in Labyrinth ... were inappropriate, that "children don't want to have scary dark stories read to them that they can't appreciate,""

Well, the thing about any good piece of art, especially children's art, is that it works on multiple levels. Watching Loony Toons or The Muppets, there's plenty of movement and slapstick, silly things that both adults and children can enjoy--but then, beyond that, you also get a lot of other more complex social references and messages--and both of these are happening at the same time, it's not like they switch back and forth.

Some of it might go over the child's head, which is fine, because they're still getting something out of it--but the great thing is that it's not something you ever outgrow: no matter how complex and nuanced your understanding becomes, there's still something to appreciate, at any age.

And as a child, even if you don't understand exactly what's going on, you start to put things together. In your mind, you're just watching a fun cartoon, but how many children get introduced to classical music, great literature, Old Hollywood, and vaudeville through those same cartoons? I knew about Moby Dick long before I knew the book, because of jokes and references in cartoons.

"Ultimately he justified this by arguing he "knows" children better than I do"

If that were true, then he wouldn't have to make that claim--he'd just present better arguments. Any time a person is sitting around saying 'well, I know, I'm an expert', that's a good sign they don't know what they're talking about, because a real expert just presents what they know instead of trying to tell you that they have authority.


message 19: by Jocelyn (new)

Jocelyn Keely wrote:"I'd be curious to see him define what innocence is, and why we should preserve it. What is good about it? Why should we value it?"

I think this is such a good question. Personally as a kid I never wanted my "innocence" preserved. I think a lot of children can feel what a lack of knowledge and understanding does to them, even if only subconsciously.

I wonder if this whole "preserve their innocence" mantra mostly comes from fear, but that is highly irrational. It's a huge stretch to claim that losing your innocence turns you into a bad person, or something. And it's selfish to decide what is good for children based on such a vague and unsupported idea.


J.G. Keely Jocelyn said: "I wonder if this whole "preserve their innocence" mantra mostly comes from fear"

I see it as part of a system of social control. Society wants to control you, to keep you productive and non-threatening, to prevent you from working in your own best interests or acting out. So, it wants to keep you ignorant, anxious, depressed, drugged, and in line with social norms.

A lot of social indoctrination is given to us as children, when we are naive and especially susceptible to it, because we don't have critical thinking skills in order to question it. We're getting messages from advertising, from pop culture, from church, and from the behaviors of people around us, and we internalize those messages, they form our assumptions and prejudices about the world.

Culture doesn't want anything to interfere with that indoctrination, and that's where the idea of 'chidhood innocence' comes in. By the time you're a parent, you've been through quite a bit, you know about sex and society to some degree, but society don't want parents to pass on those lessons to their children, they want the children to make the same mistakes--so we actually have a system now where many parents simply never discus such important and life-defining things with their kids, because it's 'too hard'.

In this instance, 'innocence' is just trying to put a positive spin on 'ignorance'--and you can see it at work in 'abstinence only' education, where the kids who are told the least about sex, who never have open, honest conversations about it are the ones most likely to get pregnant at a young age. People who get pregnant young have to work long hours, and have little free time to educate themselves or work to improve their lives--they become simple cogs in the machine, supporting the current economic model by producing yet another generation of uneducated workers who are easy to take advantage of.


message 21: by Rob (last edited Sep 24, 2015 11:31AM) (new)

Rob Maybe. Or it could be that underdeveloped humans aren't ready to cope yet with some behaviours or aspects of the human condition. My son was exposed to a graphic zombie shooter game when he was five by some negligent parents who let their young kids play (as well as watch the Walking Dead), and then all he wanted to draw or make stories about for about a year was blowing peoples' heads off.

And I say this as someone who thought I had everything about childhood and child-rearing figured out before I had kids. Turned out I couldn't have been more wrong. I've come across nothing in my life that is so dramatically different in theory and in practice than raising children. I've yet to meet a parent whose worldview and attitudes about these things didn't change fundamentally the day they had their first child.


J.G. Keely Rob said: "it could be that underdeveloped humans aren't ready to cope yet"

Well yeah, that's the entire point of parenting, isn't it--that we aren't born with the ability to cope, and so we have to learn it, by having it explained to us and by copying behaviors modeled by adults? I mean, no one here is suggesting that the best way to teach kids is by showing them WWI trench photos and hardcore porn--any time you're trying to educate someone, to show them something new, you have to tailor your methods to their current level of knowledge and critical thought.

"My son was exposed to a graphic zombie shooter ... by some negligent parents ... all he wanted to draw or make stories about for about a year was blowing peoples' heads off."

What, in your mind, made them negligent--the fact that they didn't think it was a problem to expose their own child to this media, or the fact that they exposed your more sheltered child to it? I mean, I've known children who were exposed to R-rated movies and games and who didn't think much of it because it was just fiction, not treated as a big deal in their homes, and they were used to it.

Likewise, I've known sheltered kids who would stay up at night because they heard the X-Files theme song and it reminded them of some scary half-remembered image they glimpsed in a movie, and it just set their imaginations off. I mean, if your parents shuffle you out of the room, tell you to close your eyes and plug your ears, that sends a very strong message of fear to a child, along with turning the object into one of fascination and mystery, which tends to be much more frightening than the reality.

I'm not saying all children or households fall into these two camps, just that there is a lot of variety in what kids are exposed to at home, how they react to it, and how their parents treat it and give it context (or fail to).

Likewise, is it really that odd to you that your child, having been exposed to images of pop culture violence and death, would then spend the next year exploring and experimenting with that, playing out his own scenarios and measuring the reactions of others (especially adults) to his play behaviors? You say children may not be ready to cope, but to me, that certainly sounds like a robust coping mechanism to explore very central cultural concepts, like death, violence, and injury.

"I say this as someone who thought I had everything about childhood and child-rearing figured out before I had kids. Turned out I couldn't have been more wrong."

Well, I'm afraid there's not much I can say about that--such arguments from revelation really don't leave much room for conversation, setting up a situation where 'either you're a parent, and you just know, or you aren't, and you don't'--if that's true, then there's no point in discussing it, is there?


message 23: by Outis (new)

Outis J.G. Keely wrote: "I mean, if your parents shuffle you out of the room, tell you to close your eyes and plug your ears, that sends a very strong message of fear to a child, along with turning the object into one of fascination and mystery, which tends to be much more frightening than the reality."
Sounds plausible but this type of conditioning is unnecessary to explain the reactions of sheltered kids. Pop culture can be scary if you're not used to it.
I don't think my parents sent me messages along those lines. They simply didn't expose me to the TV programs and movies many other kids were exposed to because they weren't into pop culture themselves. I still remember being deathly scared by a bizarre kids movie which can't have been particularly violent (others seemed to think the movie was funny).


J.G. Keely Outis said: "Pop culture can be scary if you're not used to it."

Hell, even when you are used to it, it can still be pretty unsettling.

But yeah, part of what intrigues me is that, rather than focusing on how to communicate effectively with children, how to provide context for their experiences in the world, these arguments often focus on trying to shut the child away and insulate them.

As Rocko pointed out, this often seems to have more to do with making the parents' job easier rather than thinking about how to introduce and explain things to the child--that the real problem is not that there is any psychological damage to the child, but that the parent is now forced to watch them explore and play out scenarios which the parent finds bothersome or embarrassing, and which the parent would rather not have to explain to them.

"I don't think my parents sent me messages along those lines. They simply didn't expose me to the TV programs and movies ... because they weren't into pop culture"

But isn't that also a message? Aren't they providing judgments and assumptions about how to interact with culture? Also, if your parents weren't deliberately insulating you from such 'bad TV', do you mean to say that you were the rare incurious child who didn't try to push boundaries and explore things on their own?


message 25: by Outis (new)

Outis Without computer networks, video tapes, cable TV or the money for the movie theater my ability to explore the world of moving images was very limited indeed. And I remember moving images as being a lot scarier than drawings or the written word.
I don't remember anyone telling me that some TV was "bad" but if I had access to a TV, it was only during hours at which very tame programs were shown. The stuff I found scary I only saw when I met kids whose relatives could afford some kind of video tape player.


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