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A Monster Calls

Fair warning: this is a book that will hurt to read.

You’ve probably heard of it.  It’s getting stars in journals and a lot of love online. In fact, Heavy Medal wondered if it’d be eligible for the Newbery. It’s also got a moving, fascinating back story. It’s hinted at by the sentence on the cover (Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd), but the full story is here.

There’s a boy of 13. A mother dying of cancer. And a monster, in the back yard, telling stories.

It’s told economically, but phrases are full of unsaid things:

“All right, it wasn’t the wind. It was definitely a voice, but not one he recognized. It wasn’t his mother’s, that’s for sure. It wasn’t a woman’s voice at all, and he wondered for a crazy moment if his dad had somehow made a surprise trip from America and arrived too late to phone and –”

Conor’s methodical ruling out of possibilities for the mysterious voice that calls out his name at seven minutes past midnight escalates the tension into something genuinely eerie. His wild, almost-unspoken hope for his father to magically appear, Conor’s knowledge that it’s useless, “crazy,” all speak volumes about the limits on their relationship and the uneasy peace he’s made with the situation.

In conversation with his father:

“I’ll come back, though,” his father said. “You know, when I need to.” His voice brightened. “And you’ll visit us at Christmas! That’ll be good fun.”
“In your cramped house where there’s no room for me,” Conor said.

There are so many spaces in the father’s first sentence, so many unsaids that the reader and Conor are filling in: “…when I need to.” And Conor’s last sentence is so angry, throwing his father’s earlier description of life in the U.S. back at him, not allowing him to escape, but simultaneously not asking him to be more specific. The language might seem lean, but it’s really elegant.

It’s a cruel book without much relief. But it does have some hope. It has a lot of love. These are mixed in with pain, as they often are, in families, in life.

Ness uses strong imagery that does as much as the art to illuminate the characters, especially Conor, his mother, and his grandmother.

His grandmother is so tough, so take-charge, that when she falls apart, I felt like I was falling apart with her:

Her mouth closed, but it didn’t close into its usual hard shape. It trembled and shook, as if she was fighting back tears, as if she could barely hold the rest of her face together.

Grandmother is not the answer Conor wants, but she’s the only one he’s getting, and her unspoken, unacknowledged patience with him is totally moving.

His mother is exhausted, but her bond with Conor is evident despite her anger and pain. They are constantly making allowances for each other out of necessity and out of love; it’s such a generous relationship, but it’s also very delicate.

“You’re a good boy,” she said again. “I wish you didn’t have to be quite so good.”

He wipes the counter clean, he throws the trash away, he makes his own breakfast. She’s acknowledging that, but not saying that he’s going to have to prepare for something worse. All the characters exist in the dialogue and in the vast spaces of the words they don’t quite have the courage to say.

Conor is full of rage, a rage that no one is able to talk to him about — although all his teachers offer to have a talk with him “any time he needs it.” He almost never yells, he rarely acts out (although when he does, it’s satisfyingly explosive and incredibly powerful). He doesn’t mask his anger, but it’s unmentioned by the adults he knows who, like Conor, are helpless in a terrible situation. Every conversation is really delicately constructed; both parties are dancing around a terrible fact (“…when I need to”), but no one explicitly says it aloud, which allows Conor to stay in denial and stew in his anger.

Until the monster comes. The monster brings humor, violence, and release. As monsters  do. The monster, a yew tree twisted and tortured into a man-shape, promises to tell three stories from when he walked before. And he commands Conor to tell his truth — his story — for the fourth.

The novel is brutal. But it’s got flashes of humor, and it can turn on a dime, from one to the other, in just a few neat sentences:

(“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 monster, like stories, is a wild thing, as ready to make trouble as he is to render some version of justice. Ness gives him mythological roots (Herne the Hunter/the Green Man) and the monster lives up to the reputation: beautiful, terrible, threatening, magical (“I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.“).

Conor’s school life is bleak. The three bullies, Harry, Anton, and Sully, are horrible, monstrous…and some days the only people who talk to Conor. They are very like the monster, actually. Terrible. Horrifying. But, as the monster points out, “you have worse things to be frightened of.” When Conor eventually beats Harry, it feels inevitable, terrible, horrifying, like a fairy tale. It’s so perfectly balanced because Conor has the nightmare, but also is the nightmare. Conor sees the monster but also is the monster. Conor is in an impossible situation and wishes for monstrous things. Recursive themes wind through the story, magnified and distorted by the fairy tale-like stories that the monster tells.

I’m at 1013 words, and I haven’t even touched the art yet! It is phenomenal. It’s all black ink and scratches, shadows and branches and spikes. It complements the text in such a curious way, mimicking the horror and tenderness that’s all mixed together. The monster is shadows, teeth, and evil grins, and yet is Conor’s only honest friend. Conor’s bossy, magnificent grandmother is never shown, but you see her dainty antique clock sketched lightly in just before Conor destroys it. And after her melt down, you just see the crack of light shining out from under her door; you’re forced to imagine her on the other side, holding herself together as the minutes tick by.

If I were at the table in Dallas, this is the book I’d be ready to defend as my top choice (well, so far). I think this is a top book of the year and has a really good chance of being in the Final Five. What do you think?

Pub details: Candlewick September 2011; reviewed from ARC.

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. Mark Flowers says

    Sarah – I loved this book too. Over at Heavy Medal there was discussion over whether it was too much like “bibliotherapy” – that is, whether it had appeal for regular kids who do not have dying parents. I was floored that it was even brought up – but I didn’t have any concrete cases of kids who have read it. It’s in the comments thread here: Do you have any thoughts to add?

    • Sarah Couri says

      Oh, thanks, Mark!! I will head over to read the conversation and share my two cents. I would say here, quickly, that I never even questioned appeal — it has all those elemental fairy tale pieces woven throughout. I can think of at least 5 teens off the top of my head that I’d hand this book to. (Of course, I’m not actually at work and have no concrete examples, either; I don’t know what those 5 teens would say about it once they try it!)

  2. Just for the record, I’m a Real Live Kid without a dying mother and I loved this book to bits. Patrick Ness is brilliant. Every novel he’s written has made me cry in at least two places and this one is no exception.

    Beautiful, beautiful book.

  3. Mark Flowers says

    Thank you Tess and Sarah! That was my hunch as well – I may have even said something about fairy tales over on the other thread.

    With that out of the way, is there anything else stopping it from being one of the best YA books of the year? I listed some other of my favorites elsewhere, but that was before I read this book. I might bring a different book to the table, but depending on the conversation, I could easily see throwing my weight behind this one.

    Thank you for mentioning the art in particular – it was phenomenal.

  4. I seem to be alone in this, but the book felt very young to me, not YA at all. All of Conor’s reactions, his need to hide from what is happening and the way he does it, the ways in which all of the adults in his life shelter him from it too–the entire thing feels to me like it is about and for a middle grade reader. A sophisticated one, perhaps, one who can deal with the pain and anger and ugliness of life in the book, but not primarily for a teen reader.

    I also have to wonder what kind of reaction this book would have gotten if the backstory wasn’t known and the writer wasn’t familiar to many of us. I expected to cry and I did. I also expected to be blown away by the line-level writing and the storytelling, and to love the inclusion of the mythology and be impressed by the way that was woven in, and I was not. Ness does a beautiful job of showing the stages of grief and of getting across that it’s okay to feel all kinds of feelings when someone you love is dying, even ones that seem selfish or socially unacceptable. Since our society struggles with these things, perhaps the fact that the book addresses them so well makes it valuable, at least to readers who are going through or have gone through something similar. But this falls far short of awards-level brilliance for me, and I don’t see it being YA enough to fit as a Printz book even if I had thought it stellar.

  5. I really loved this one too. It’s interesting to look at it in contrast to Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy, which is such a massive, epic three books, using so many words to tell it’s story. This on is just as good, but I was particularly impressed with how few words were used, the raw simplicity of the language and how effective that was when paired with the images.

    But as much as I loved it, it still felt like more of a Newbery book to me. I don’t see this book getting a ton of high school readership in the way that Printz contenders do / should.

  6. Sarah Couri says

    This is so interesting to hear, Sarah and RDS! You guys are not alone in wondering about audience and asking the attendant questions about appeal. (The Heavy Medal thread Mark linked to has an extensive and interesting discussion going on now. Not that we can’t here, too, just making sure to cover all possible discussion bases.)

    I will say, the five teens I mentioned earlier are all either juniors or seniors. But as I said, I’d go for the hard sell on the fairy tale aspects; many of my fantasy fans and lovers of retold, reworked fairy tales are not too concerned with questions of audience — if it strikes their fantasy fancy, they’re sold. Or anyway, that’s been my experience.

    I also just thought of another two teens (Clair and Samir, who are both…juniors? Or seniors?) that I’d point this out to on the basis of the art. Not sure if they’d take it and read it — actually, I think Samir would smile politely, flip through it, and leave it next to the computers…but I’d bet some money that Clair would at least check it out…). So I stand by my teen appeal opinion (despite its theoretical foundation).

    Are there more teens (besides Tess! Hi, Tess!) who have read it and liked it? Or any librarians who’ve tried to share it with teens and been unsuccessful?

  7. This is the best book I have read this year!

  8. I found it awfully message-heavy, bordering on the hackneyed, at least for readers at the older end of the age spectrum.

    • Sarah Couri says

      Lee, you are not alone in wondering about audience! I find this so, so fascinating because my thought for teens to share it with were — all of them — older teens. I know I said this before, but you’ve got me wondering again, Lee…are there any librarians or teachers or parents or anyone who has shared this with a teen? Or a kid? Do we have any teen (or kid!) feedback on it?

      Besides from Tess, who is a teen, I mean! (I didn’t forget you, Tess!)

  9. Mark Flowers says

    @ Lee – just wondering: what is wrong with being message-heavy? Can’t we all agree that, for example, HUCK FINN or (to pick a Printz winner) Myers’s MONSTER are both pretty “message-heavy”? Does that make them intrinsically bad?

    Or is there something specific to the way Ness puts across his message that is off-putting? To me, that’s a separate issue – but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

  10. Hi Mark,

    I have a distaste for books that need to tell us what to think and feel that teens are perfectly capable of working out a more subtle (and nuanced) version of living, despite Ness’s claims that ‘…humans are complicated beasts’. Here the message is schematised in such a way (the stages of grief, for example) that essentially belies this claim. And I find it particularly distasteful that the monster tells Conor that what someone thinks is not important, only what they do, as if it all were so simple. As if truth existed separately from the way we think about it.

    I prefer not to use the word ‘bad’ for message-heavy books, only disappointing: when the message takes over, it undermines – preempts even – the richness of the literary experience.

    Hi Sarah,

    In addition to my comments about message, I find that the writing itself is something of an age jumble. So many of the metaphors, for example, really only work with younger readers: ‘like iron to a magnet’ or ‘the yew tree hovering over the graveyard like a sleeping giant.’ Of course I’m aware that Ness is using metaphors appropriate to a boy of Conor’s age – at least I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, since they’d make an older reader roll their eyes in exasperation – but then there are other passages which the metaphors suggest an older or at least more sophisticated Conor: legs so thin on his grandmother’s settee that it looked like it was wearing high heels or, a bit further on in the same passage, curliques on the teacups which threatened to cut your lips.

    What also disturbs me about the book is the cookie-cutter feel to its characterisations: the trendy grandma, the bullies etc.

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