There are good writers, there are great writers, and then there's Neil Gaiman, who inspires slack-jawed awe. His omnibus Fragile Things contains my all-time favorite short story, "A Study in Emerald"; I don't want to give away too much, because I think you should read it for yourself, but suffice it to say that it begins as very clearly one thing, and slowly, organically turns into something else entirely. Gaiman's ability to tell a fully-formed, absorbing story while moving between genres with confidence and grace is nothing short of astonishing. His brand of fantasy may not be for everyone, but as a writer – in terms of versatility and control of the form – he is second to no one.
In the afterword to one of the more recent editions of Coraline, Gaiman calls the short novel his proudest achievement as an author. He's right to be proud. Some people are stunned to learn that Henry Selick's recent animated adaptation was made using stop-motion: frame-by-frame manipulation of physical objects and sets. I look at the book with a similar sort of amazement bordering on disbelief. It's an remarkably meticulous and effective work, such a stylistic and formal balancing act that it almost seems fragile.
Coraline begins by lulling you into complacency. We know it's a "children's book," and the opening pages are filled with the lovable naiveté, repetition, and short, declarative sentences we usually associate with writing for tykes. And so we settle in for a gentle children's fantasy story. The title heroine will have an adventure – scary, but not too scary – learn some lessons, and give her parents a big hug when it's all over.