Neil Gaiman talks Coraline, Stardust and other childrens storiesGwynne Watkins
Among Neil Gaiman’s memorable literary creations are a demon family with buttons for eyes (Coraline), a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard (Newbury Medal-winner The Graveyard Book), a fallen star who comes to life as a girl (Stardust), and a jester who can talk to buildings (the film Mirrormask). So when Neil Gaiman describes Blueberry Girl as “a very odd little book,” one has to wonder – what does Neil Gaiman consider odd?
Maybe what’s odd to Gaiman is that he, of all the unlikely writers, has created the perfect gift book for expectant mothers. Blueberry Girl is a poetic wish for a baby girl, illustrated with fantastic beauty by Stardust artist Charles Vess. Gaiman wrote the text nine years ago as a gift for his friend Tori Amos, who had coined her unborn daughter “the blueberry.” The poem was never intended to be published, but the author eventually “got tired of copying it out by hand for people who would phone me up and say, ‘You know that Blueberry Girl thing you did? I heard it once and it’s beautiful and I have a friend who’s having a baby, and could you give me a copy?'” (In exchange for making her poem public, Gaiman is donating portion of proceeds from Blueberry Girl to Tori Amos‘ charity RAINN.)
Neil Gaiman spoke to Babble about writing bedtime stories, raising children in the internet age, and his least favorite children’s book of all time. – Gwynne Watkins
Hi, this is Gwynne from Babble, the parenting website –
I looked at it the other day.
Oh, you did! What did you think?
I liked it. I was glad that I was no longer – well, I’m still parenting, I guess. I have a twenty-five-year-old, a twenty-three-year-old, and a fourteen-and-a-half-year old – but no longer doing that sort of parent-y thing with incredibly small ones.
What are your memories from that time? Anything on Babble hit a nerve with you?
Well, the whole thing comes rushing back. And also, the difference between the first, the second and the third. The first child – you walk around absolutely terrified that they won’t get to do something. You’re going, “What do you mean, they walk? Do we teach them to walk? Should we do walking training?” Then time passes, with the second one you’ve started figuring it out, and by the third you’re just holding on to every second. “No, no, no it’s okay! You’ll walk! Let’s enjoy this little bit first.” You realize how incredibly evanescent it is.
I’m quite sure that you once told bedtime stories to your children. Do you still?
It’s really sad – I miss storytelling. Round about the time my daughter Maddy – now the fourteen-year-old – reached her early eleventh year, she lost interest. And it was a bit sad because my older daughter had always loved doing her homework near to wherever we were reading, so she could pretend she was too old and too cool. When I did The Graveyard Book, I went on a reading tour for it instead of a signing tour. I read every chapter, one at each stop, and that was I think in many ways because I missed the actual action of reading aloud so much.
I talk to a lot of writers for Babble, and most of them claim that they don’t make a distinction between the writing they do for children and the writing they do for adults: it is what it is, and they don’t try to have an audience in mind. But your adult work is so adult – does that gap between children’s books and adult books exist for you?
It does and it doesn’t. I’m very aware that if I’m writing something – even if it’s a picture book – that a child is going to experience, then I’m writing something that an adult is going to have to read – and not just going to have to read once, but if the child likes it, read three times a night for the next eight months. So when I did things like The Wolves in the Walls, which is very much a children’s picture book, I did it from the perspective of, “I’m going to put language in here that will be fun for an adult to read. Remembering the hell of some of the books I had to read to my children…
Any in particular that come to mind?
There was one called Catch the Red Bus. It was hell. In which a family of bears go on a trip using transportation of different colors. And it was just something that I had to read my son – he loved it – two, three times a night for probably eight months. The awful truth is that it’s still there in the back of my head: “It’s a train, said Mr. Bear. We’re going on a trip today!” Aargh! So. You get to the point where you want to write things that adults will enjoy reading to kids.
Having said that, that doesn’t mean that everything you write should be appropriate for kids. There’s stuff that kids don’t generally enjoy; there’s stuff that makes them uncomfortable. It’s like when you’re a kid and you see a drunk adult throwing up across the road. You go, okay, this is obviously something in Grown-Up World, and it’s not something I need to know about. I’m not interested and I don’t want this thing in my universe.
Blueberry Girl has this wonderful message about how girls should have their hearts broken and have adventures and be fearless, which is a sentiment that I’ve mostly seen in children’s literature for boys. Was that intentional?
Well, it’s definitely something that I believe, which helps. Part of the message of Coraline was “Go out and be fearless.” And trying to explain to my daughters particularly that bravery is not when you’re not scared; bravery is when you’re absolutely scared and you go on and do the right thing anyway. Which I figured was a useful and important thing to learn.
Has Natasha (Tori Amos’ daughter, for whom the original poem was written) seen it?
Yes. And she liked it, which was an enormous relief.
As someone who has publicly embraced both very old things (like ancient mythology) and very new things (like Twitter), when you think of the world your children are growing up in versus the one you grew up in, what change are you most happy about?
I think the thing that I’m happiest about is that the problem of information in this new world is sorting it and classifying it and not simply obtaining it. I grew up in a world in which information was hard to find. And I think we’re heading into a world in which information of all kinds – movies! TV! art! – there’s more good stuff available in print now than there was ever before. You can find things, you can talk about things, there’s so much good stuff out there, and I think that’s marvelous.
And what change pleases you the least?
The thing that I regret most – not regret, but I find strange and problematic – is just the way that it seems harder for kids to have adventures. I grew up in a world in which my job was to come home in time for dinner. Obviously if I had not come home in time for dinner, somebody might have worried. But beyond the coming home in time for dinner, I was wandering with friends through abandoned mansions and strange old gardens, amiably trespassing through woods and old orchards, and just off having peculiar adventures. The fact that we can know where our kids are at all times now means that people actually do. There should be room for kids to wander.