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Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness. Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd. Illustrations by Jim Kay. Candlewick, Random House. 2011. $19.00 ages 12 and up

"Conor forced himself to keep looking at it, making himself see that it was just a tree, a tree like any other, like any one of those that lined the railway track.
A tree. That's all it was. That's all it ever was. A tree.
A tree that, as he watched, reared up a giant face to look at him in the sunlight, its arms reaching out, its voice saying, Conor -"

This is a story that was percolating with Siobhan Dowd prior to her untimely death from cancer at age 47. Patrick Ness wrote the story based on a set of notes that she had written. Since her death two books have been published, Bog Child and Solace of the Road. Both are award-winning and brilliantly conceived. A Monster Calls would have been her fifth book.

Patrick Ness uses her notes to fashion a stunning story. Jim Kay adds powerful black and white illustrations to accompany Patrick's text. They create mood, power and vulnerability. In his author's note prior to the story's opening lines, the author says:

"Almost before I could help it, Siobhan's ideas were suggesting new ones to me, and I began to feel that itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting the words down, the itch to tell a story."

The monster who calls on Conor, both virtually and figuratively, is profound. He is part giant and part yew tree. He visits Conor at night when fears are darkest, and overwhelming. He tells three stories meant to have meaning for the young boy as he deals with the terror and aching sadness of his mother's illness and cancer treatment. Conor's nightmare:  "The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The one that always ended with—" is
tangible, but never voiced. The monster demands a story from Conor, or the consequences will be dire. That story must be the truth that is being denied.

Of his monster, Patrick Ness has this to say:

"And then you get something like the monster in A Monster Calls. There’s the actual big monster, of course, who’s got monstrousness written all over him and who was also tremendously fun to write because he refuses to settle down into something easily explainable, even when he’s being nice. But isn’t the real monster the unnamed thing that Conor’s afraid of? Isn’t that the scarier monster? The one we can’t face, the one we can’t even imagine as a physical presence? I think that’s probably the scariest thing. The monster we fear inside us, so much so we can’t even look at it. Even though the mere act of looking is often enough to slay it."

There is much for Conor to consider as he thinks about his future. First, it is the possibility that his mom might die. Then, what? Who will take care of him? Where will he live? Can he count on his father who has moved to America, started a new family and rarely comes to visit his son? Is there a place for him with his father at all? Will he go to live with his maternal grandmother?

It is a beautiful book that deals with tough topics. I found it difficult to read but, at the same time, I could not stop the reading. As terrifying as it can be, it is also reassuring. There is great love and greater understanding for a boy whose life is forever changed when his mother becomes ill. As she struggles with the effects of her treatment, her love never wavers, her guidance remains strong and her spirit finds a place in Conor's heart. 

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