My fifth book for the 48 Hour Book Challenge was A Monster Calls. A Monster Calls was written by Patrick Ness, based on an idea outlined by author Siobhan Dowd before she died, at 47. It's a relatively brief book, with quite a few black and white illustrations, and yet took me quite a while to read. It's a book that made me stop to think, puzzling out riddles, and drawing parallels to my own life. A Monster Calls is a powerful story, one that puts the reader through an emotional wringer. It's quite a triumph for Patrick Ness, and a legacy for Siobhan Dowd.
A Monster Calls begins as Conor O'Malley wakens from a terrible, recurring nightmare. Out of the darkness behind his house rises a monster, a huge old yew tree come to life. The monster speaks to Conor, who is too traumatized by his other nightmare, and the events of his waking life, to even be afraid. The monster may be a dream, or maybe not, but Conor will certainly see him again.
I won't say anything further about the plot, because this is a book that the reader should enter with an open mind (and because the US edition won't be released until September, though you can order it now from the UK if you can't wait). Suffice it to say that A Monster Calls is heart-wrenching.
Jim Kay's illustrations are dark, in keeping with the tone of the story, and the nightmare themes. The monster looms menacingly above the pages. Shadowy tendrils creep along the borders of other pages. Conor is seen primarily in silhouette.
A Monster Calls reminded me a bit of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, but with even darker themes. It also reminded me, a tiny bit, of the movie The Princess Bride. The monster tells Conor three stories within the story, and the banter between the boy and the monster reminds me of that between the grandfather and grandson in the movie. Like this:
("This is all sounding pretty fairy tale-ish," Conor said suspiciously.)
(You would not say that if you heard the screams of a man killed by a spear, said the monster. Or his cries of terror as he was torn to pieces by wolves. Now be quiet.)
The stories themselves seemed familiar, though I can't precisely place them. Classic myths, perhaps.
Ness writes spare yet descriptive text, evoking scents, smells, sounds, and feelings. He also writes with a certain adolescent attitude, channeling the moody Conor. Here are a couple of quotes that I think give a feel for the book, without giving away the story:
"Already taller than Conor's window, the monster grew wider as it brought itself together, filling out to a powerful shape, one that looked somehow strong, somehow mighty. It stared at Conor the whole time, and he could hear the loud, windy breathing from its mouth. It set its giant hands on either side of his window, lowering its head until its huge eyes filled the frame, holding Conor with its glare. Conor's house gave a little moan under its weight." (Page 5, ARC)
"Conor said nothing, and the silence took on a particular quality, one he was familiar with, caused by how Miss Kwan's body shifted forward, her shoulders dropping, her head leaning down toward Conor's.
He knew what was coming. He knew and hated it." (Page 72)
A Monster Calls is a book that is already generating a lot of buzz among reviewers. It's a YA book that adults are going to love. I'll be interested to see how kids like it. Conor's voice is authentic, and the issues in the book cut to the heart of what's most important to kids. The monster is terrifying and fascinating. But it's also a bleak and intense read, demanding an emotional response from the reader. It's not that I don't think kids can handle it - but it's going to require a certain degree of hand-selling to get them started with it.
A Monster Calls is impressive and memorable, a real tribute to Siobhan Dowd. Highly recommended.
Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: September 27, 2011 (in the US, the book was published in May in the UK)
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final printed book.
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).