Occasionally a book comes along that deserves all the hype surrounding it. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is one such book. Having already scooped the Galaxy British Book Award for Children's Book of the Year 2011 and The Red House Children's Book Award 2012, A Monster Calls looks set to charm readers and critics alike for some time to come. The Red House Children's Book Award is unique in that the winner is voted for by children. Ness has described himself as "properly chuffed" to win the award, "Winning the Red House is terrific, especially because it's chosen by young readers themselves. Trust me, as a writer for young people, I know how bracingly honest they can be about their opinions."
The book has a lot going for it. For starters, it has this great premise:
The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting. He's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming...
The monster in the back garden, though, this monster is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth.
Then there are Jim Kay's incredible illustrations, which use everything from "beetles to breadboards to create interesting marks and textures". Shadowy, brooding, ominous; this is the stuff of nightmares, but a nightmare so beautifully rendered that it draws us in. Note to reader: this novel should not be read as an e-book. The quality of the illustrations demands the hard copy format. You have been warned. Now give the monster what it wants.
The broad popularity of the book is somewhat surprising giving the dark themes it explores. Our young protagonist Conor O'Malley has his life shaped by his mother's cancer, school yard bullying and his parent's divorce. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this insistently dark subject matter would be off-putting, even repellent for many young readers. In fact, the opposite is true. The streamlined directness of Ness' prose makes for compulsive reading. It is a heart-wrenching story. But it is an important story, one that gives more than it demands from the reader.
The inception of the book is, like the novel itself, sad and uplifting in equal measure. This is because A Monster Calls was originally the brainchild of author Siobhán O'Dowd, who died of breast cancer at the age of 47 before she had time to write it. O'Dowd is the author of four young adult books, two of which were published in her lifetime, two after her death. Ness has written movingly in the Authors' Note to the book that he felt "as if I'd been handed a baton." The finished book, which he makes very much his own, is as excellent a tribute to the late O'Dowd as any author could ever have hoped for.
The monster that visits Conor tells him stories, perplexing tales laden with ambiguity. These parables confuse him and cause him to do things he would never had chosen for himself. At times, he too is monstrous. The monster, which has been compared to Ted Hughes' Iron Man and the "Green Man" is wild and magnificent, as elemental as fire or water. Like nature itself, he is at times implacable and lacking in human compassion, a terrifying force when unleashed. More than anything else, the monster speaks to the transformative powers of storytelling, the capacity for words to make all the difference. And whether Conor is ready or not, the time has come for him to tell his own story. It is the hardest story he will have to tell. It is the truth.
Watch the book trailer here: