“You do not write your life with words … you write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.” – Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls.
I can honestly say I’ve never cried reading a children’s book as an adult – that was until, I read this. Winner of a plethora of awards including the Carnegie and Greenway Medals for writing and illustration and the British Children’s Book of the Year, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is an absolute must-read.
Whilst the content itself is wholly moving for any reader, one could argue it is an adult’s book written for a children’s audience, given its subject matter. Dark and thought-provoking, the story behind its origins makes it even more compelling. It brings to the contemporary audience the classic folklore tale, whilst touching upon something so prevalent and commonplace in society today, – cancer – tackling its taboo status within children’s literature.
We are introduced to Conor, undoubtedly a young man in a thirteen year old boy’s body. He is self-sufficient; he does the washing, feeds and cares for himself to allow his mother some deserved rest. He has to, of course : she is suffering from cancer. We learn that Conor’s father has moved to America with his new wife, and his only other relative is his Grandmother, with whom he shares a less than comfortable relationship. One night, at 12.07, the Monster arrives at Conor’s window. He wants to know Conor’s truth. The Monster vows to continue to visit at this time and to tell Conor three stories; Conor’s story will be the fourth. Conor is not scared of the monster, for he is scared of something much, much worse.
Ness was introduced to the idea for the story by Siobhan Dowd through his editor. Sadly, prior to getting the idea fully off the ground, Dowd died of cancer herself. Ness took on authorship, wanting to convey the importance of teenagers as emotional beings.
We follow Conor on his journey through his mother’s illness; his torment at the hands of his bullies at school, the breakdown in his relationship with his peers and subsequently, his fear at becoming the invisible boy that nobody wants to approach due to the stigma surrounding his mother’s illness. He breaks down and breaks things; he questions the Monster and his motives. He then comes to rely on the Monster for assurance, believing that through his stories, the Monster is trying to show Conor that belief will encourage his mother’s healing. Ultimately though, this is not the case, and as Conor discovers, the Monster’s real reason for visiting is to make Conor accept his truth, by admitting it to himself.
Deeply, deeply moving, incredibly heart-breaking and a story that will make every reader question their relationships with their past losses, I feel that whilst this is an important read for older children, it is certainly a story that adults should read too, as it is not just children who suffer with stress, current or post-traumatic. We all at some stage have loved and lost and had to learn to deal with that loss in order to move forwards. Conor is only a child, learning this with the Monster’s assistance.
The illustrations truly make the book, I do not believe there is much point in buying the unillustrated copy, as they most certainly add to the sense of loneliness and heartache; sharp lines, jagged edges, dark scenes and scary places. The characters are rarely present and if so their faces are never visible. Kay has commented that he wants his readers to be able to sense the atmosphere of the empty spaces, employing ambiguity as an illustrative tool which works incredibly in drawing the reader into Conor’s space. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be as an illustrator to have ensured they did not trivialise such an important piece of literature, regardless of it being aimed at a children’s audience.
I bought my copy from Amazon.
Read more Children’s Literature Reviews, here.