Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jason Lea is for the children

I guess nobody wanted to Seuss-abrate yesterday.

That’s OK. If there is a casbah in heaven, I’m sure Dr. Seuss is rocking it.

People have two reactions to children’s literature. Either we marginalize it — “oh, that’s a kid’s book — or christen it with nostalgia — “I loved that book as a kid.”

I enjoy the occasional kid’s book for two reasons. One, I have the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old, a poorly adjusted one. Two, sometimes an easy read cleans the palate after wading through a 700-page epic.

I don’t have the endurance to follow “The Brothers Karamazov” with a John Milton chaser. I need a glass of water in between. When I finished “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the next book I read was Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline.” (Granted, those were the only books I had on the airplane.)

Sometimes, people don’t want soliloquies or gravitas. They want a love story or a fairy tale, a hero beating a villain and an obvious moral. They want a wise-cracking sidekick in a sidecar or a scary story that can be forgotten by the next morning.

“Coraline” reads like a bedtime story. It’s kid’s stuff, but the kind of kid’s stuff that’s meant to linger in your subconscious for awhile.

If I had to describe Gaiman in a word, it would be oneiric. He grabbed the attention of the American public by writing about an entity who was Dream personified in the “Sandman” comic book. It was an ideal marriage of man and subject matter. Even a decade after he stopped writing “Sandman,” his work still has the hazy, vaguely threatening, implausible but wholly believable tone of a dream.

His lighter fare — “Stardust,” for example — is a daydream. “Coraline” is a nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong, “Coraline” is kid’s fare — the type of story an adult will appreciate, but a child will understand. But it could frighten the young’ns.

It has a lot in common with “Alice in Wonderland.” Plucky underage heroine, check. Inexplicable descent into a dreamworld, check. Funny cat, check. Dire consequences nipping at the edges of frivolity, check. Tea, check.

Coraline is a precocious, curious girl. (I don’t think are any books dedicated to stupid, ambivalent children.) She’s bored by her busy, indifferent parents. She finds a secret door that takes her to a flat like her own, except her parents are fun... and their eyes have been replaced with black buttons... and they want to replace her eyes with black buttons... and cats talk... and annoying but innocuous neighbors are transformed into gooey monsters.

“Coraline” follows a familiar path. Girl wishes she had more excitement; girl finds more excitement; girl fights disembodied extremity; girl learns important life lesson.

It’s uncomplicated, but that’s the whole point of fairy tales.

I could rank “Coraline” on a scale from one to five, but then I wouldn’t get to use my new, superwonderful ranking system.

Jason Lea Ranking System:
5 - Wu-Tang Clan
4 - Delonte West YouTube interviews
3 - Celebrity guest appearances on sitcoms
2 - Olive Garden commercials
1 - New York Yankees (hate Yankees...)

As an adult reading “Coraline,” I would rank it with celebrity guest appearances on sitcoms. In other words, it’s good, but I wouldn’t call it special or lasting. It has a novelty that won’t last longer than sweeps week.

However, I suspect precocious, curious children (especially girls) would enjoy this as much as I enjoy Delonte West YouTube interviews... which is, to say, they’ll love it.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. OK, I'm done writing about kid's books for awhile. I mean it.

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