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In the dark of night, when the house is still, what fears creep into your heart? For Conor O’Malley, his nightmares take the shape of a very old and very dangerous monster who visits him every night at seven minutes past midnight. He’s half-convinced that these must be dreams of his fevered mind. But how can they be, when the visits are so vivid and when he finds physical evidence of the monster’s existence the next day?
Conor’s nightmares begin shortly after his mother starts her treatments for cancer. He’s also dealing with a father who lives far away and is engrossed with his new family, a brisk and determined grandma who doesn’t understand him, and schoolmates who don’t seem to see him anymore. As readers learn more and more about Conor’s story and the terrible monster who comes to visit, it is impossible not to feel worry and fear and sadness for this boy, whose must shoulder problems that have toppled many adults before him. But even in his anger and pain, Conor’s defiant spirit shows flashes of dry humor and painful hopefulness that are difficult to witness, but make him impossibly endearing.
A Monster Calls is a middle grade children’s book, but it’s a children’s book in the way that Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein wrote children’s books–that is, the surface stories are certainly well-written and compelling, but underneath that are the themes of confusion and loneliness and sadness that elevate them to timeless works of literature. And while A Monster Calls chooses to confront its demons more literally than some other books may, it does so with such fierce intelligence and ease that it never feels didactic or forced.
“…the fire in Conor’s chest suddenly blazed, suddenly burned like it would eat him alive. It was the truth, he knew it was. A moan started in his throat, a moan that rose into a cry and then a loud wordless yell and he opened his mouth and the fire came blazing out to consume everything, bursting over the blackness, over the yew tree, too, setting it ablaze along with the rest of the world…”
– Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
This an incredible book about the enormous burdens of responsibility and grief and loss. I read most of it with anxiety in my heart and as the story intensified, the ache in my throat got worse and worse. By the time I reached the end, hot tears were dripping onto the last two pages, and continued to fall as I immediately read those pages again, and as I read them yet again.
But more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love as I was reading this. Love for Conor, love for his mother, love for his grandmother, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, such an important book, and one that I think so many children and so many adults will appreciate. I cannot imagine that there will be another children’s book written this year that will provide such a moving and emotionally truthful experience, or one that will so easily become an instant classic. In just 215 pages, A Monster Calls shatters your heart and then wraps it up tightly again so that you can go and be present in the world as an infinitely wiser, more loving human being.
About the Illustrations:
The words themselves are powerful and full of terrible beauty and latent emotion. But if you’re able, do try to get your hands on a copy of the hardcover, which is illustrated with wildly expressive artistry that complement the story perfectly and captures exactly the right feel for the book. I’ve included some of the illustrations from the book here in this review, but if you’d like to see more images, please visit Jim Kay’s website to learn more about the process the artist used.
About the Story:
The story behind this book makes it even more poignant. Siobhan Dowd, the award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, conceived this idea and the characters and the beginning–but died of breast cancer at the age of 47 before she could write the novel. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book based on her idea, and he succeeded in achieving a work of fiction that both transcends its genre and painfully wrenches your heart.