A Monster Calls was published this year, in both Europe and the US, and really merits a mention. It was an unusual project in that the story is based on an idea by the late author Siobhan Dowd, but written by author Patrick Ness. Dowd was the author of several children’s novels and passed away in 2009, aged just 47.
Ness was approached by publisher Walker books and asked would he consider working with an idea Dowd had left behind. He took the premise of the tale, fleshed it out and the result is a horribly beautiful story about a young boy coming to terms with the pending death of his mother.
It sounds grim and yes, it is a heavy subject matter, but God it’s so fantastically well-written.
The protagonist, Conor, takes care of his ailing mother alone. His parents are separated and his father lives with his new family in America. Apart from his grandmother, who is not the cuddly type, Conor has no other family to lean on. He feels isolated and responsible for his mother. It’s a huge strain and things aren’t helped by the fact that his classmates avoid him. In a typically teenage way, most are uncomfortable knowing his mom is dying and unsure of how to treat him.
As his mother slowly and painfully succumbs to cancer, Conor begins to receive visits from a monster. Always was night and always at 12.07am.
The monster is there to help Conor, although it’s not always obvious. He does so by retelling stories, all of which have a moral lesson and none of which Conor enjoys. This monster takes the form of a giant tree; he refers to himself as Cernunnos, an old mythical God associated with nature, fertility, and rebirth.
There’s a lot going on in A Monster Calls, and Ness has managed to write a devastatingly touching book about grief, the cruelty of nature and the necessity to accept that sometimes in life things happen that are beyond our control. The message is clear, it’s not what happens to us that defines us, but rather how we chose to deal with it.
It’s a hard, heavy, atmospheric book, enhanced by the eerie illustrations of artist Jim Kay. Kay was a great choice for the project. In the past he has worked as an Assistant Curator at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and has an appreciation for the natural world. The chance to ‘make trouble’ with a mythical creature in the form of a yew tree is a perfect fit.
I love how Ness draws on mythology. The idea of an ancient force overseeing tragedy and supporting Conor is an excellent way of taking something traditional and making it relevant to contemporary young readers.
The book is all the more poignant when you consider the story behind it. It’s an important book about life, death and love. Please don’t be put off by the heavy subject-matter. As it turns out there’s quite a peaceful message of acceptance, love, and family at the heart of the tough tale. A great book to spark the imagination of young readers and story-tellers.