Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness (ages 12 - 15) - a powerful story of a boy coping with grief

I sometimes wonder if we, as parents, try to protect our children from the hard things in life too much. We try to protect them, even though our children deal with hard things every day. And other times, I wonder if we are trying so hard to deal with our adult issues that we don't really see our children and the issues they're wrestling with. Conor, in Patrick Ness's powerful new book A Monster Calls, knows all too well about wrestling with life's pain. His mother is battling terminal breast cancer. And yet in so many ways, Conor is alone to deal with his pain - alone, that is, until the monster comes walking.
A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
inspired from an idea by Siobhan Dowd
illustrations by Jim Kay
Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2011
ages 12 - 15
available from your local library, favorite bookstore or on Amazon
Life for Conor has been completely changed by his mother's cancer. Breakfasts alone, as his mother struggles with the effects of her treatments. The recurring nightmares, filled with screaming and falling. And of course, school - where everyone avoids him, not knowing what to say. And then, the monster comes. At 12:07, to be precise. The monster is looming, giant drawn up from the earth, from the ancient yew tree outside Connor's window.
"Conor O'Malley, it said, a huge gust of warm compost-smelling breath rushing through Conor's window, blowing his hair back. Its voice rumbled low and loud, with a vibration so deep Conor could feel it in his chest.
I have come to get you, Conor O'Malley, the monster said." (p. 8)
Jim Kay's illustrations add a powerful, almost visceral element to A Monster Calls. He uses everything from beetles to breadboards to create marks, textures and images from Conor's dreams and his sense of reality. The dark pen and ink, along with relief printing and various printed textures, convey the dark, twisted, nameless horror and grief that consumes Conor. The illustrations are perfectly pitched toward a teen audience, suitably abstract, dark and disturbing.

This book is utterly compelling, completely riveting, and deeply painful to read. On the one hand, I want to tell everyone I know about it. And on the other hand, I can't imagine the effect it would have on children. My 5th grader would get terrible nightmares from this - she just wouldn't be able to process Conor's pain. And yet other children yearn for books that make them feel, that make them understand others' pain, perhaps to get a sense that their pain is understandable or manageable, or to get a sense that they are not alone.

Each person will bring their own stories, their own journeys to A Monster Calls. What I was so impressed with was the way Ness approaches this story. As Tasha Saeker writes in Waking Brain Cells,
"Ness does not duck away from anything difficult here, rather he explores it in ways I haven’t seen before. He takes the darkness and makes it real, makes it honest, creates truth from it and lays it all bare. It is a book that is difficult to read but too compelling to put down."
As Ness writes in his author's note, A Monster Calls was inspired by an idea developed by the writer Siobhan Dowd, the author of "four electric young adult novels", as Ness says. She had this idea for a story, but "what she didn't have, unfortunately, was time." Dowd passed away from breast cancer before she was able to develop her ideas further. But her ideas grew in Ness's imagination, and he ran with them.

I was fascinated reading a conversation between Patrick Ness and two teachers who both lost their mothers to illness during their childhood. Head over to Monica Edinger's blog Educating Alice to read Ness's thoughtful comments on their reactions.

A Monster Calls has been recognized by many as one of the best books of 2011:
The review copy came from my personal collection. This is a book that will stay with me, in my heart, for many years. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2011 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books.


  1. What an excellent, insightful post, Mary Ann. This book basically wrecked me. I love your point that it will affect every reader differently, because each reader brings their own story to it. Yes.

    I don't know if I could recommend it to an individual reader, not knowing how it would affect them. I listed it as one of my recommendations for Fall in my library's e-newsletter, but I really don't think I could just hand it to someone and tell them it's a great read. It IS a great read, but it's too personal... I have to stick with blanket, general recommendations for it and hope that some readers will be led to read it if they're in the right place for it.

    So interesting- I really hadn't thought about that until reading your post.

    Reading Everywhere

  2. I haven't read it, but your post has me intrigued. I think, perhaps, it sounds like one of those book you just need to file away until you meet someone who is struggling with that issue. And isn't that what makes for a great book? Touching people and helping them feel they aren't alone?

    Maybe it's not for everyone, but it's for someone. Great to know it's out there. Thanks for the insightful discussion on it.

  3. I love Patrick Ness's writing. The Knife of Never Letting Go is one of my favorite YA novels. I've had A Monster Calls on my Nook for quite some time now, but hadn't gotten around to reading it yet. I guess I need to now. Thanks for the wonderful review!