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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Monster Redux

Ness Monster ReduxI’ve mentioned frequently that I’m having a hard time finding a middle grade novel to get solidly behind, a book that is clearly among the most distinguished of the year–and one that I am also crazy passionate about.  I’ve had no problem finding those kind of books in other genres: picture book (THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE), easy reader (I BROKE MY TRUNK!), chapter book (SIR GAWAIN), nonfiction (AMELIA LOST), and young adult (DAUGHER OF SMOKE & BONE).  But I haven’t found that kind of book among the middle grade fiction–at least not on the first read.  So I’m auditioning middle grade novels for my top three and A MONSTER CALLS is my first callback.

You’ll remember that the first time I posted on this title, I got us completely sidetracked on eligibility issues.  Since we included A MONSTER CALLS on the shortlist, we are obviously hoping for the best.  The next time we discussed it, we got sidetracked on audience issues, and I wanted to address some of those points before we move on to the literary elements.

The word bibliotherapy was tossed around quite a bit.  Bibliotherapy is not a genre of children’s literature, but rather a genre of therapy, and authors obviously have no control over how their books may be used in various settings.  OKAY FOR NOW, for example, could also be used as bibliotherapy, for a child with an emotionally abusive parent–or an older sibling coming home from war with a severe disability.  The word was used as an argument ad hominem, that by labeling a book as something–fluff, sequel, young adult, didactic, cute–we can easily dimiss it by virtue of the label itself rather than because of the actual criteria.

A Newbery book must display respect for children’s understandings, appeciations, and abilities, but it does not need to be a popular book.  At the Newbery table, there may be a very brief discussion about the audience and how it responds to the book–members often solicit child responses to contenders–but the primary focus will be on the other criteria.  In my opinion, if your strongest concerns about a book are not rooted in the literary elements then you’re probably looking at a very serious contender.

SETTING

the physical landscape of the novel is nicely done, but nothing special.  However, it’s the mood and atmosphere of the piece that really distinguish this particular setting from other books with strong settings.  Yes, the illustrations heighten the sense of dread and foreboding and menace, but it’s grounded in the text.

PLOT AND THEME

To my mind, these elements are inextricably linked.  Whether Conor is dealing with his home life or processing his internal life with the monster, the plot is about death, denial, and grief; the subplot–what happens at school–is about bullying.  Because the story has been pared down to its essence, everything revolves around these themes.  That tight focus is a strength of the piece, but it’s also pretty claustrophobic, leaving little respite from the heavy themes.  Death and bullying!  The classic, time-honored depressing theme paired with the trendy, modern one.

STYLE

Ness writes with an effortless mix of dialogue and description, and his clipped sentences create a hypnotic cadence that is further enhanced by his use of italics, parentheses, and em dashes.  The sentence level writing places this book in the top tier, but there are also big picture literary devices at work, too, such as imagery, symbolism, folkloric elements, and the stories within the story.

CHARACTER

Conor’s inner life–his hopes and fears–and their outward manifestation in his relationships at home and at school are rendered with great clarity and force.  I find the scenes between mother and son at the end are especially moving and affecting.  But because of the narrow focus of the novel, I also find it a one-dimensional characterization, too.  Conor is only defined by his mother’s terminal illness and the bullies at school.  We know next to nothing about his hobbies, interests, abilities, or anything else about him, really.  So it’s a bit of an odd characterization: very raw and real in some aspects, but also kind of flat and unfinished in others.  I also don’t find Conor particularly likeable which is only a problem when coupled with that odd characterization because the result is that I feel cool, distant, and oftentimes emotionally uninvested.

CONCLUSION

So I think I feel about A MONSTER CALLS the way that Nina feels about PENDERWICKS.  My personal taste probably inhibits me from appreciating this title as fully as some others do.  I definitely see distinguished qualities all over the place, but I also have the minor concerns I mentioned here and there.  It’s definitely at the front of the pack, but I don’t see the separation yet that I want to see.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Rachael says:

    We’re running a mock newbery at our school (gr 6-8) and I think this is probably the front-runner so far (they also really like Okay for Now, but because it’s taking them longer to read it, not as many students have reviewed it). My students love it and it’s also the most circulated title in our library so far this year.

  2. Rachael says:

    This one just read like allegory to me. The bully, for example, is far too insightful and self-aware to be a real bully, but he makes a good stand-in for Conor’s desire for punishment. The mother is fairly one-dimensional as well. And Conor himself, as you point out, embodies the qualities of grief (anger, guilt, etc.) without being much of a real boy. This had the effect of distancing me, emotionally, from the events of the book, which seems counterproductive in a book like this.

    I contrast it with Breadcrumbs, where Jack embodies guilt and anger over his home situation, while still being a fully fleshed-out character.

  3. Maureen E says:

    I think for my personal reading, the main problem I had was that the ending felt so clearly foreshadowed (that is, his mother was always going to die; Connor was always going to have to let her go) that there was nowhere for the story to go, no possibility that it could turn out another way. That seems to lessen the story–in fact, is it really a story as we usually think of it if there’s no chance that the plot might turn out differently? It’s a slightly weird example, but I keep thinking of my Shakespeare professor in college who noted that Shakespeare’s comedies could all have been tragedies, and his tragedies comedies, if only one thing had happened differently. That’s precisely what MONSTER is lacking, and I found that it really pulled down the reading experience (because I didn’t want to get invested in the characters, for one thing).

    Now, I don’t know if my objection really fits into the criteria, and obviously a lot of other people have read it and love it and have huge emotional responses to it. But tied in with your note about Connor’s characterization, which I entirely agree with, it makes me less interested in MONSTER as a Newbery contender.

  4. DaNae says:

    When a perfectly balanced cookie recipe is executed the addition of extra chocolate chips will be distracting and throw the entire mixture out of balance. Or the addition of potato chips, although delicious, wouldn’t fit with the mixture at hand. A MONSTER CALLS has not a lick of extra or extraneous clutter. It is a perfect balance of atmosphere, tight – if minimal – characters, words, sentences, punctuation, and emotion to embody its big themes of guilt, loss, and surrender.

    I may prefer my characters to have more appeal, like say Doug Swieteck, but if we knew more about Conor it would be distracting and throw the entire book out of whack.

    On the appropriate audience part, all I can say is that this, along with BETWEEN THE SHADES OF GRAY, is leading in allegiance in our Newbery club of 5th and 6th graders. I’m not sure what it is with kids this age that causes them to embrace tragedy. My suspicion is that they are looking for safe ways to understand their broader world and books like these offer detours from their secure lives.

  5. Mr. H says:

    My opinions about . . .

    AUDIENCE: I’m not entirely convinced that 5th and 6th grade readers will dig this book because they are connecting to the themes it presents, or because it’s a unique, creative, sometimes surprising (to them, I saw nearly everything foreshadowed heavily) way of storytelling? DaNae says something is drawing her kids to this book. Is that all we care about? Or do kids have to actually “get it” in order for this to work?

    SETTING: Jonathan mentions that the groundwork for the atmosphere is created in the text, and I’m not sure I see it as being that distinguished. What makes it so difficult is that the illustrations wrap themselves around the text in such a way that separating the two is next to impossible. It’s hard to tell if I would’ve taken away the idea of a “claustrophobic” setting (perfect word by the way Jonathan!) if I hadn’t had the illustrations to immediately paint that for me.

    PLOT/THEME: I was thrown while reading this because the jacket describes this as “An unflinching, darkly funny, and deeply moving story of a boy, his seriously ill mother, and an unexpected monstrous visitor.” I kept looking and waiting for “darkly funny” but never found it. Maybe in the brash way Conor speaks to the monster at times, but otherwise, this book is really really dark.

    This is a total aside, but I took a writing class a few years ago and in it, I wrote a short story about my grandfather, who passed away when I was in college. I admit, it was a very dark character piece, with me in the center, feeling guilt for removing myself from the picture once he came down with Alzheimers. I tossed in just a fewlight hearted flashbacks and many of the comments I received from readers was that those flashbacks actually saved the piece. Because without them, the piece would have been just “too dark”. Many commented on how with just a few simple light hearted scenes, still allowed me to create a dark character piece, that wasn’t too overwhelming to process.

    I feel that A MONSTER CALLS is missing this. I recall some fond scenes of Conor and his mother, but not enough to lighten the mood even a bit. I know, that wasn’t the point of the story, but to me, if a boy was really coming to grips with the death of his mother, and the author is attempting to show ALL of the stages of his grief, realistically, something in there should involve some happy memories. Did I just totally miss them?

    CHARACTERS: I agree, that the characters are totally one-dimensional, but they need to be in this type of story, as DaNae points out.

    STYLE: Strongest feat of the book. Ness has a powerful way with words.

    Overall, I’m incredibly mixed on this one.

  6. Meghan says:

    On a personal level, this book just didn’t do it for me and I identify with much the criticism already commented on. I was unsure of the intended audience before reading the book ( unsure as to whether it would appeal to or speak to middle grade readers) and after having read it, I dont feel that concern has been resolved. This book, to me, was almost like a book about a child written FOR adults. It felt like the way an adult would perceive issues of bullying or strained parent/child relationships. I did however, appreciate the character development of Connor that some have fault with. While many of his “childlike” traits were never explored (interests, hobbies,etc) I felt a deeper connection by seeing his responses to deeper emotional issues- however contrived I may have felt they were.

  7. DaNae says:

    I understand the adult comments, but there is kid appeal in A MONSTER CALLS, and I think Betsy Bird nailed it in her review: (loosely quoted) it starts with monster, it ends with monster, and there is plenty of monster inbetween. I don’t know about the kids you know but the promise of having your pants scared off is the biggest filller of my hold list.

  8. Mark Flowers says:

    Oh characters in general: I don’t have the book in front of me, but my memory was that Conor’s father, in particular, and his mother and grandma to a lesser extent, were actually incredibly well written. Everything in this book is compressed, as Jonathan notes, but in very few words and scenes, I felt that I got a full view of the father’s conflicted feelings about Conor, his ex-wife, his new life in America, etc.

    On Conor: I suppose I can understand Jonathan and others not finding him likeable, but (and I know Jonathan wasn’t disputing this) a kid with so much anger and depression in him is surely not going to be very likeable. More than that, though, I never found him *un*likeable – I just identified with his very appropriate emotional responses.

    On being “too dark”: I just don’t see how this is a legitimate criticism. It is, of course, everyone’s right to prefer a book that isn’t as dark, but it simply has nothing to do with the quality of the book. Can anyone dispute that this darkness and claustrophobia was exactly what Ness was going for?

    On the “preordained” ending: I have two thoughts. First, I think that as much as it is foreshadowed, a child reading this will still hold out hope that his mother will be cured (I’ll admit it – I even thought that the medicine from the tree might do it). Second, even granting it as preordained in some sense – this surely is part of the book’s folkloric style. When we read folk and fairy tales, even reimagined ones, we know the basic plot and often even the ending, but the key is to see how we get there, and how the characters respond. I think the real plot of A MONSTER CALLS was in Conor finding his way to accepting his mother’s death, not whether or not she will die. And that plot, I thought, was very intricately plotted.

  9. Mr. H says:

    Mark, when I spoke about the book being “too dark”, it was meant to be a side comment voicing my personal preference. Not necessarily tied to Newbery criteria.

    However, why the need then to promise on the jacket of the book, something “darkly funny”? What am I missing? What in this book was “darkly funny”? (Newbery criteria aside . . .)

  10. Mr. H says:

    DaNae, when I read Betsy’s review of A MONSTER CALLS, I actually strongly disagreed with her about the monster. To me, the monster in the book is not scary. The opening is creepy. The illustrations are creepy. But from the moment the monster speaks, it’s obvious that the monster is there for Conor. To teach him. To help him. Not to hurt him.

    So when I read Besty’s review and see your comment now, I have to wonder what exactly about this monster kids will be scared of? I think they’d be more scared of Conor!

  11. DaNae says:

    Mr. H, how can you possibly dispute the fact that the monster is ever-present throughout the book? I will give you that he doesn’t turn out to be scary (something I don’t quite mention to my students up front) By the time they figure out that the monster isn’t going to delimb or eviscerate anyone they have become invested in Conor’s story. Because even better than a monster that might rip your head off, is a partner in crime in tearing your grandmother house to shreds.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. It seems like the last time we discussed A MONSTER CALLS several of its critics suggested that it had no kid appeal, and now that Rachael and DaNae have come forward to say that, not only does it have kid appeal but it is a kid favorite, we have now shifted our concerns to why and how they are reading it–which is of absolutely no concern to us. Kids, like adults, read for a variety of reasons–and we really don’t need to understand them in order to find the text distinguished. Unlike most of us, the Newbery committee will field test this with a variety of child readers and, thus, when they convene there will be little, if any, discussion along these lines.

    2. The dust jacket describes the book as “darkly mischievous and painfully funny” which is completely untrue. The book is neither mischievous nor funny–in any way, shape, or form. But the Newbery committee does not take the dust jacket into account in its deliberations, however, misleading it may be.

    3. I also want to say that I’m not sure that everything I mentioned above is necessarily a criticism of the book as much as it is an effort for me to understand why I responded the way I did, meaning less enthusiastically than some. For me, it’s a worthy book, but if chosen, I would see it more as a first-among-equals winner rather than a head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest winner. But, then, I can same the same thing for virtually every middle grade fiction contender.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    4. I’ve had the book on my desk all week long, and the students have been really intrigued. I do think the the illustrations, the title, and the prospect of scariness (whether or not it actually materializes) is sufficient to draw students in, and then I think the story will hook them.

  14. Mr. H says:

    DaNae, I’m not disputing the fact that the monster is ever-present. Not at all. I’m just saying it’s not scary. The monster in the book is not there to scare the reader. Sure, Conor’s behavior may be terrifying at times, but the monster itself is not scary to me. That’s all I was saying.

    What I disagreed with Betsy’s review was this particular line from it . . . “by the time you reach the end there’s not a kid alive who could say they were mislead by the cover or title.”

    I handed my copy of this book to a fifth grader of mine that I thought would maybe like it. They handed it back a few days later and said, “I thought it was going to be a scary story.” They didn’t finish it because it was “boring”.

  15. Rachael says:

    Just to follow up on kid appeal, I have all my students write reviews online of each contender, so here are some of the things they are saying about A Monster Calls:

    -”The story is heart-wrenching and the end makes you cry.”
    -”The book left you itching to know what was on the next page, and made you go crazy and nervous about what would happen next.”
    -”This book was AMAZING. I really think this book is THE one. I cannot really explain it, but during the beginning its very suspenseful because we don’t know what the monster wants from Conor. Throughout the end, it became sad and sweet.”
    -”It was hard to understand in the beginning, since the nightmare wasn’t revealed yet, and the monster just sort of turned up unexplained, but it all came together in the end. This book made me laugh out loud at some parts, and made me want to sob at others.”

    This is a mix of grades 6-8, although definitely more 6th graders are participating.

  16. Brandy says:

    Re Conor’s character: Yes, it was defined by his mother’s illness. I think this was intentional because many people I know who experienced similar situations as a children have told me they felt completely defined by it. It rather takes over your life, which is part of what leads to the anger and the guilt. The confining of Conor’s character (as he himself feels confine) helps build that claustrophobic atmosphere. That was how I read it.

    I think the other characters were drawn well, and like someone else said, with few words. The compactness of the story and how Ness managed to evoke so much emotion in me without taking up 300+ pages was part of what impressed me about it on an initial read.

    And I love what Mark had to say regarding the end. That exactly.

  17. Meghan says:

    Thank you Jonathan, for bringing to light that whether or not kids will be drawn to the book does nothing to say whether or not it is distinguished. It is too tricky a game to figure out what pulls a reader (especially a child) into a book. I think one of the heaviest factors for this book in its Newbery contention is discerning Ness’s web of character development. Brandy’s point about illness defining a person is so valid. To me, that aspect of Connor’s characterization is well done. I struggle with the validity of the bullying situation and Connor’s response to it. In my experience, a student with a dying parent can be ostericized at school because of his peers often feel unsure of how to treat him- but would it really be a cause for his bullying? It almost feels as though Ness is trying to cram in another (perhaps more “on trend”) theme to couple with the central theme of death.

  18. Meghan, I actually found the bullying situation incredibly believable. In my experience (decades of middle school classroom teaching) insecure kids who are the bullying sort can be so freaked out at another child’s difficult situation that they will turn on them not simply isolate them.

  19. Meghan says:

    So, I’m now feeling compelled to go back and do a 2nd more critical reading of A Monster Calls (despite the pull of my newly purchased copy of Shine by Laura Myracle calling from my Tbr pile!) to grapple with this bullying theme. Monica, you remind me that every bullying situation is distinct and personal. Perhaps Ness draws on unique impressions of his own experience to re create Connor’s struggle. Never the less, maybe the validity of the bullying in general isn’t really the question here. Certainly, individual aspects of it only served to strengthen the story for me- for example, when Connor finally gives way to his internal rage and pummels Harry. Or, when it appears (at least from my perspective) that Harry’s character isn’t as cruel as his companions- ie, when he abstains from hurting Conor in several scenes. This played to the Monster’s story telling, in which it is revealed to Conor that people aren’t just black and white.
    However, I felt so taken a back when Harry then unleashed his cruelest torrent yet by refusing to acknowledge Conor. How does this aspect of the bullying situation perhaps tie in with the Monster’s stories? Or does it at all?

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Not that this has anything to do with the Newbery, but I found myself wondering how the book would have read without the bullying theme altogether. It already has the feel of a novella (and it definitely feels like a novella after Chaos Walking). Would we be more generous with some of these “faults” if we perceived it as a novella rather than a novel?

  21. Well, since I think the bullying story is plausible I also think it is an important thread to the whole story; it would feel hollow without it. The way Conor withdraws from everyone and then his intense responses to his grandmother and the bully are connected to my mind. And my guess is the kids who read it (and I’m one who never questioned child appeal) will totally buy into the bullying and Conor’s response.

  22. Nina says:

    I still have to re-read this one, but I do want to echo the ditto of what Mark said about the ending….and that this is actually something that stands out for me as distinguished about the book. We DO know what’s going to happen, and the whole story is about getting there, and in fact it’s that doubleness of Connor knowing-but-not-admitting what’s happening that creates the amazing tension of the plot…that tension that resolves itself as the monster. as a reader I didn’t know HOW we were going to get to the ending, only where it was that we’d end up, and it made for extraordinarily compelling narrative.

    Of all the books on our shortlist, this one has the strongest tactile memory for me. I can feel/smell/hear it.

  23. May I triple Nina and Mark’s observation re the reading journey for this book. As Mark pointed out it is very much in keeping with the folkloric aspects in the work.

  24. DaNae says:

    It’s been awhile, but I felt the bullies were there to show us that Conor looked to punish himself, thus giving us a premonition into his guilt. They didn’t seem extraneous or separate from the major story arc. The fact that the Boss Bully eventually made Conor invisible caused more pain because Conor sought out the physical abuse for penance.

  25. Meghan says:

    I think that the idea of the book without the bullying would have forced Ness to do more character development on Connor in some other way. As Danae and others have mentioned, the bullying shows us a part of Conor’s character that hungers for punishment. It’s as though he realizes how helpless he is in his mother’s situation, but still feels guilty for not being able to save her. Therefore, the bullying situation expresses Conor’s rage and his guilt. So if we remove that situation, I’m not sure that the remaining novella would be strong enough to give the reader such insight into Conor’s character, and without the depth that Ness uses to develop Conor, the story might not be distinguished.

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