[Note: This review contains some spoilers.]
“A Monster Calls” won the Carnegie Medal for Patrick Ness’s text and the Greenaway Medal for its illustrations by Jim Kay — the first book to receive both honors. The critically acclaimed story was made into a film late last year. Despite the depth and skill of its writing, “A Monster Calls” is a relatively quick read. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy one.
Based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd — who asked Ness to write it when terminal cancer prevented her from doing so — “A Monster Calls” tells the story of Conor O’Malley, a young British boy who at the beginning seems older than his years. Between his mother’s ongoing illness and his father’s abandonment, Conor has grown used to being the man of the house.
But as competently as he deals with everyday life, he’s not prepared for the strange vision, or dream, or reality that comes to him one night: the yew tree from a nearby graveyard turning into a monster, pulling him out of his house, and threatening to eat him alive.
But Conor isn’t scared of the monster. He’s scared of something much worse.
“A Monster Calls” deals with some very heavy themes: namely, a child facing the serious illness of his mother, and knowing deep inside, however reassuring she tries to be, that she’s not getting better. For a long time, Conor has kept his pain and fear bottled up inside, not wanting to burden anyone with them. The monster gives him a chance to let them out, but the trouble is, when he does, other people get hurt. For example, he lets the monster beat up a boy at school who’s been bullying him — or he thinks he does. What the people around him actually see is Conor himself beating up the bully.
Taking out his feelings on others, Conor quickly learns, is not the solution either. What helps him, in the end, are the monster’s stories — fairy tales with strange, disappointing endings that nonetheless contain profound truth — and the monster’s insistence that Conor speak the truth about his deepest, darkest secret. “If you speak the truth,” it finally tells him, “you will be able to face whatever comes.”
Again, these are tough themes for young readers, and there are also occasional violence, profanity, and sexual references (one of the monster’s stories concerns a sexual relationship that eventually ends in murder, though it is without explicit descriptions). So parents may want to read this story with their kids, or at least discuss it with them. The story’s strongest theme, however, is ultimately positive: that it’s okay to be conflicted, to long for relief from pain, to not be perfect all the time. It’s even okay when unkind or selfish thoughts come to us, as long as we choose not to act on them.
Although there’s nothing overtly spiritual or faith-based in the story, its messages, as far as they go, are good ones. Particularly if the young reader in your life is struggling with something hard, “A Monster Calls” may prove to be a helpful and nourishing read.
Image copyright Candlewick Press. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.