A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd
Illustrations by Jim Kay
Published in 2011
Genre: Children’s literature, fantasy
“The monster showed up just after midnight.”
While this may seem a cliché way to begin a tale about a monster, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is anything but. Conor O’Malley is plagued by nightmares; more specifically, he has a recurring nightmare filled with wind, darkness, and letting go of someone’s hand which forces them to be swallowed by darkness. In the wake of this nightmare, a monster appears outside his home and says that it has been called there by Conor. What follows is not a happy tale (those involving monsters seldom are) but an emotional adventure into the crushing weight of guilt lain upon a young soul.
Conor is a fairly typical 13-year-old boy; his parents are divorced and he lives with his sick mother after his father moved to America. Okay, maybe that’s a bit more specific of a situation, but you know what I’m getting at. Conor is brave and logical (as shown in his initial reaction to the monster, which is far more skeptical than fearful), though sometimes his logic is skewed by what he wants to believe rather than the evidence in front of him.
Being a bit of a loner, Conor is bullied by a boy at school named Harry. His isolation is worsened by his refusal to speak to his former best friend, Lilly, who told the other kids at school about his mother’s diagnosis, which caused everyone to begin treating him differently.
It is in this state of self-imposed emotional exile that the monster comes to him. The monster, which transforms from the yew tree in his backyard, says it will tell him three stories and Conor will tell the monster a fourth, his “truth.” Conor says he doesn’t know what story he will tell, but the monster insists that he does know but simply refuses to say it.
The monster arrives at precisely 12:07, and through the course of the monster telling its stories, parallels are drawn between each tale and the circumstances in which Conor currently exists. While Conor initially assumes these stories will all have uplifting morals present in order to teach him some sort of lesson (skeptic, remember?), he is continually surprised by the events of each story and the monster’s part in how they end. By the time it is Conor’s turn to tell his tale, the inevitable can easily be seen on the horizon, but he must admit the truth he has suppressed during his mother’s illness.
We finally learn that Conor feels he should be punished because he wants everything to be over to stop the pain he is feeling, but the monster reveals that it is okay to feel this way in such a dire situation. Illness is never easy for the victim or those they love and it is not a bad thing for him to wish the waiting period would be over. This moment of catharsis is transcendent for him and he is able to see and spend time with his mother before the clock strikes 12:07 for the last time.
The illustrations in this book are so integral that the story wouldn’t be as effective without them. Strangeness and familiarity blend simultaneously to the style (it looks to me like a water color/drawing/painting combo, but I really don’t know much about the techniques for creating visual art), which allows the scenes that are blessed enough to have visual representations carry more weight through their inclusion.
A Monster Calls is not a book for the emotionally faint of heart. There is some heavy subject matter present and though we know the inevitable end to the book, the build up is so masterfully done that we can’t help but continue on despite the pain we know will be at the end of the story. I admit that I cried (I’m talking heaving sobs through blurred eyes and a nose dripping with snot that I had to fight through just to read the last few pages. Pretty picture, no?), and though that was due to a shared experience of losing a loved one to a terminal illness, the story’s look at grief and how those left behind feel transcends the specifics of the situation.
I cannot speak highly enough of this book; the emotional catharsis of pent up feelings I wasn’t even aware I was harboring shows the power that art, both written and visual, continues to excel at conveying.
There is no entry in the “Not recommended for” section in this review because everyone should read this book at some point in their lives.
Verdict: 5 pages blurred by tears out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of fantasy that transcends the genre, anyone who has lost a loved one and struggled with grief, children and teens, everyone, and you!
Not recommended for: