A few nights ago I met one of my greatest role models.
I have been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing since first reading Coraline when I was ten years old. My memories of growing up with this book still play like a montage in my head—I remember how I was running errands with my aunt, wandered into a children’s bookstore, and was handed Coraline by a salesperson after I told her I wanted something scary to read; reading the book in a matter of hours that afternoon; my aunt buying tickets for us to hear Neil Gaiman speak during his Coraline book tour a few weeks later, and after the Q&A, eating stale Altoids and reading brochures on summer creative writing classes to pass the time as I waited for an hour and forty five minutes to get my copy signed; reading the book at least five more times over the next few years, throwing it in my backpack before school, and dropping it in the muddy puddles on floor of the bus, the stains of which are still visible on the pages of my warn, battered, beaten copy.
Coraline is a badass. In the story, she travels through a mysterious door in her family’s new flat and meets her Other Mother, a woman with black buttons for eyes who wants to raise Coraline as her own. Coraline escapes, but after the Other Mother kidnaps Coraline’s real parents in order to lure her back, she returns to her alternate universe to rescue her parents. Coraline dreams of being an explorer; she scavenges through overgrown gardens and abandoned theatres, is stalked by rat circuses and left to spend the night in a closet haunted by the spirits of the Other Mother’s former victims, and outsmarts every monster by the end of the book. What ultimately made me fall in love with the book was its message that children are capable of more than they’re given credit for; even just the fact that the story is so scary compared to other children’s books proves that stories don’t need to be dumbed down for children. Reading it, I felt like I was being taken seriously, like I was being treated like an adult, which at ten years old, is all a child really wants.
I read everything I could find by Neil Gaiman over the next several years. But even as I grew up, I always came back to Coraline, and everything it had taught me about the power of books. I began taking creative writing classes, and decided I wanted to learn the craft of fiction writing for myself, so I could someday create art that I hoped would affect readers in the same way Coraline had affected me. So when I saw that Neil Gaiman would be doing his final tour for his newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in Chicago at the Music Box Theater on July 9th, nearly ten years after I’d met him in Minneapolis, I knew I had to go.
I was counting down the days until the signing, when I saw an interview with Neil Gaiman online titled The Book That Made Me Want to Write. In it, he begins talking about a signing recently held in Cambridge, and says, “I found myself meeting a lot of really really nice young ladies… who were incredibly keen to see me. And they were, you know, 19-21 years old… and I realized that this was the Coraline generation.” When I saw this video, I almost screamed. Not only are there other girls out there who have been affected by Coraline in the same way as myself, Neil Gaiman is aware of these girls. The thought of a “Coraline generation” is inspired, it proves the affect a really good book can have on a child, even years into the future.
The reading at The Music Box was perfect, as expected, but the most memorable part of the night for me was when I made it to the front of the line to have my book signed.
I had brought my beat-up copy of Coraline and showed it to Neil Gaiman, explaining that I’d met him about ten years ago. “I’m studying creative writing now,” I told him, “and I consider this the book that made me want to write.”
He reached out and took my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “Thank you for telling me that.” Then, glancing at the rat drawing he’d made ten years ago, sketched a second rat in my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. “There,” he said, “now this is the only copy of Ocean with a Coraline rat.”
There are dozens of people I admire and would love to meet, and this isn’t the first time I’ve pledged my admiration in shaking, broken sentences to an author at a signing. But as I was leaving the Music Box that night, I realized that there was no other author who had had the same lifelong impact on me as Neil Gaiman. I will always be a part of the Coraline generation.
These are only some of the Neil Gaiman books I own; back in Minnesota, I have Good Omens, Sandman Volumes I and II, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls, Fragile Things, and two books on the making of Mirrormask.