I don’t mind metaphors as much as I might. I think that generally I’m supposed to hate them when they show up in children’s literature. I don’t if they’re done well, though. Maybe if I were an adult encountering The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time I’d find the Jesus allegory annoying, but as a kid it flew right over me. Similarly, if I were an eleven-years-old today and someone handed me A Monster Calls I could read this whole book and not once speculate as to what the monster “really means”. Author Patrick Ness (who also wrote a book called Monsters of Men just to confuse you) writes a layered story that can be taken straight or at an angle, depending on what you want out of the book. What I wanted was a great story, compelling characters, and a killer ending. That I got and so much more.
The monster comes at 12:07. It would probably be easier for everyone, the monster included, if Conor were afraid of it, but he isn’t. Conor’s afraid of much worse things at the moment. His mom has cancer and this time the treatments don’t seem to be working as well as they have in the past. He’s plagued by a nightmare so awful he believes that no one else ever need know of it. Bullies at school pound him regularly, his grandmother is annoying, and his dad lives with a different family in America. The crazy thing is that Conor kind of wants to be punished, but the monster has a different purpose in mind. It’s going to tell him three stories and when it’s done Conor will tell him a fourth. A fourth that is the truth and also the last thing he’d ever want to say.
For the record, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate a book that includes the word “monster” in the title and then proceeds to include lots o’ monster. Since we’re dealing with the serious subject matter of a boy learning to forgive himself as his mother dies of cancer, Ness could also be forgiven for just putting a dab of monster here or a dribble of monster there. Instead he starts with the monster (“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”) continues to pile on the monster scenes, and by the time you reach the end there’s not a kid alive who could say they were mislead by the cover or title. The monster in this book isn’t the only wild Green Man to be published this year. Season Of Secrets by Sally Nicholls has a Green Man of its own, but if that character is akin to cuddly Mr. Tumnus of Narnia, this fellow is closer in scope to something darker and more dangerous.
While reading this book I wondered how many kids will willingly believe what Conor forces himself to. I did. When his mom says that she thinks the newest treatment will work, I’m just as ready as Conor is to pounce on that piece of information and swallow it whole. Ness really places the reader in Conor’s shoes. Even when he’s awful you understand why. In fact, I was shocked at how easily Ness puts you into the shoes of a teenaged boy. When a character is willingly obnoxious it can be hard to get the reader to identify with them. In this case, you not only identify but you feel what he is feeling every step of the way. Not too shabby.
I was impressed with how far Ness takes everything too. There is violence in this book and in light of Conor’s pain it feels like necessary violence. Often when a book shows a kid acting in a violent manner the standard rote response from adults is, “well, is the child punished for it?” But that’s just precisely the POINT of this book. Conor longs for punishment. When, at one point, it looks as though a terrible punishment will be placed on his head he welcomes it. There’s something inside of himself that he thinks needs to be taken to task, and so his violence comes only partly from his anger. It’s born out of his self-loathing too. And for the record, don’t let anyone tell you that only young adult novels can contain self-loathing. Some children know just as much about that kind of thing as adolescents do.
Let’s talk bibliotherapy. Now is not the time to debate whether it works or not, but I still have to address it. Bibliotherapy, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is the notion that if I knew a kid with a parent dying of cancer, I could hand them this book and it would provide a kind of catharsis. As a children’s librarian I get a lot of parents coming into my branch saying things like “Her grandmother had a stroke, do you have a book like that?” Whether bibliotherapy is a good idea or not is up for contention. Some people say that when kids have crummy moments in their lives the last thing they want is a book reminding them of their problems. And normally I might agree, but in the case of this book Ness does a brilliant job at not only showing the external problems that come with having a mom with cancer (the isolation at school, the fear of losing the parent, etc.) but the inner fears that I’ve never seen addressed in a book for kids before. The blame. No one ever wants to talk about the blame, or if they do then it’s the wrong kind of blame. Ness talks about it. Ness knows. And in knowing, one way or another he’s going to help a lot of kids out.
I’ve read the odd objection to the book here and there. Some have pointed out that the bully in this story is way too much of a literary bully. Which is to say, no kid in the world would act the way he does. Even if he is a highly intelligent psychopath (always possible) would a kid actually be able to recognize that the only way to bully someone like Conor effectively would be to tell him “I no longer see you”? There’s also the question of audience. Is this strictly a novel for teenagers, or can kids get something out of it as well? I opt for the latter notion. There is one moment when the monster tells a story that includes the line “They had vowed to be chaste until they were able to marry in the next kingdom, but their passions got the better of them, and it was not long before they were asleep and naked in each other’s arms.” As descriptions of sex go, that one’s pretty vague. Hardly descriptive, so I think kids will be able to handle it.
A word on the illustrations. Jim Kay is a British artist who has worked on everything from the UK edition of The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens to Ministry of Pandemonium by Chris Westwood. In this book Kay comes to us looking like nothing so much as Dave McKean by way of Stephen Gammell. Nature appears on the pages at its darkest and most twisted. Kay’s plantlife never appears without intent and his monster, I am happy to report, is properly horrifying. Humans are a little more touch and go. Conor’s arm seen in one of the final images is one of the clearest glimpses of a person’s body in the book. This is a book that isn’t afraid to display the occasional two-page illustrated wordless spread. There’s been a trend in child and teen publishing to give art its due in conjunction with written texts. I approve entirely.
In his Author’s Note at the beginning (not the end, which is interesting in and of itself) Ness explains that this book came from the brain of the writer Siobhan Dowd. “This would have been her fifth book. She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.” Time that Ness did have and talent to boot. Siobhan died in 2007 of breast cancer. In her name, a book has been written about a child handling a parent dying of cancer. Says Ness “I had only a single guideline: to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked.” She would not have liked this book. She would have loved it. And she would have treasured it too. Now that she cannot, we can.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.