Magic & Good Madness: A Neil Gaiman Reread

Reading to Your Parents: My Mother, Coraline and Me

My mother and I have a complicated relationship between ourselves and books. As a very young child, she was the gatekeeper into the world of reading. She repeated stories so many times that I knew every word like a script to be recited, and would take her to task for skipping bits. (She was only trying to get sleep a few minutes earlier. I was a heartless child.) When I started getting impatient, she asked me if I wanted to learn how to read. I was only in preschool at the time, so she took it upon herself to teach me.

But though I do owe my love of reading to my mother, we have an alarming divergence of opinion where literature is concerned.

My mother does not devour books. In fact, my mother cannot sit still for more than an hour at a time. I have never seen her read a novel for longer than thirty minutes a stretch and know that there are very few that grab and hold her attention. Most of them are written by Carl Hiaasen. She really loved Devil in the White City. The Da Vinci Code annoyed her because she’d already heard all of Dan Brown’s theories about the Grail elsewhere. She has always hated books that read as though the author is hoping for a movie deal, but she loves going to see movies that are based on those books.

My mother will not read if there is anything nagging at her. Errands to run. Yoga to practice (she teaches it). Plans that need tweaking. An odd sound that must be investigated.

For her impatience, she got a daughter who could shut the whole world out by reading. When she brought me to the beach and urged me to jump in the ocean, I had a book open in the sand. When she called me down to dinner for the twelfth time, I had a book open on my bed. When she told me I had chores to complete, I had a book open inside some closet in hopes that she wouldn’t find me.

My mother loves genre movies, but she’s not so keen on genre books in general. They’re certainly not her go-to. For that, she got a daughter who would sit on a stool and expound upon knights and hobbits and magic and spaceships while she made dinner, long after she’d lost interest in the conversation. It’s not that my mother and I are housed on opposite poles, but we do have different modes and speeds and settings and levels of intensity.

Coraline Mother Henry Sellick Neil Gaiman Yet despite all this, my mother is still interested in hearing about what interests me. (Parents have this affliction, I’ve heard.) She can’t help but ask why I like the things I like, and what I think about any and everything. And sometimes we end up in a situation that allows us to share something unexpected.

Like that time I read Neil Gaiman’s Coraline to my mother during a long road trip, and suddenly, for the first time in years,  she loved a book that I loved.

For the record: I love reading out loud. I’ll do weird voices and accents for different characters, pause dramatically, act as my own foley factory for sound effects. It is one of my very favorite activities. And on that particular road trip—I was heading back for my final year of college—my mom mentioned that she’d heard a lot about this Neil Gaiman person, and she wanted to know what “the fuss” was about. (She probably didn’t use the term “the fuss,” actually. It just seems to me like the sort of thing one says to a college student.) I pulled Coraline from my bag, and told her what it was about.

“Sounds scary.”

“It’s pretty creepy, yeah.”

“Why don’t you read it to me?”

“Really?”

I fully expected my mother to stop me one chapter in and ask if we could turn on the radio. I expected her to pose a navigational question (I am always the navigator on long car rides), and then tell me she needed to concentrate on the road, the book forgotten. I expected her to interrupt with a question that had nothing to do with the story, proving that she hadn’t been paying attention for at least the past five minutes—as I said before, my mother is a vacillating creature, prone to darting between things rather than resting on them. I’d had this problem with her my whole life; friends always marvel at my ability to recall and return to any subject in a conversation regardless of how long ago it was discussed. Then they meet my mother and a new sympathy lights their eyes—she is the lord of interruption and non-sequiturs. In response, I became the master of keeping-things-on-track.

Holding my mother’s attention has forever been one of my greatest battles.

I suppose Coraline and I could relate.

But my mother never stopped me while I read that book. Or rather, she did—to ask clarifying questions. To make comments about the characters. She did eventually stop me to figure out where we had to go next, but she didn’t ask me to put the book aside. I didn’t quit reading until we reached our hotel for the night.

When you can capture her, my mother is fantastic audience. She gasps at all the correct intervals, cringes and wrings her hands and yells at fictional people for doing the wrong things. When I described the Other Mother with those black buttons sewn onto her eyes my mother exclaimed, “Oh, ew!” When she met the poor ghost children: “That’s terrible.” When Coraline came back to her own world and found her parents missing: “Oohhh…. She took them, didn’t she? The Other Mother?”

I love observing others while they absorb books and movies and music, mostly because it’s impossible for anyone’s reaction to be the same. I knew that my mother wasn’t taking Coraline the way I had. She was a woman who had her own child. To her, this was the story of a daughter coming to better understand and appreciate her mother and her family. It wasn’t that story to me, but what could it possibly matter? Sharing something doesn’t mean you have the same experience. It means that you are together, present in the same moment. You can misunderstand something that still share it. You can misremember something and still share it. You can have different interpretations of something and still share it.

I don’t often get to share the things I love with my mother. But I got to share this book with her. For one whole car trip, she and I were (literally) on the same page. And I think we both understand how important that was—to this day, she still brings up “that Carol-Coraline book,” and how much fun it was having it read to her. She didn’t like the film much, though: “The regular mother in the movie was an awful woman! Why was she so mean?”

So Coraline holds a dear place in my heart. Because of the many stories I have tried so hard to get my mother invested in, this is one of the few that stuck. One that we were able to share, that became a part of us. And stories like that are the most precious kind.


Emily Asher-Perrin thinks that perhaps she should read her mother Anansi Boys next. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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