A Monster Calls
This low-fantasy middle grade story is at once hefty and heartrending—despite its relative brevity and target audience age.
Thirteen-year-old Conor O’Mally has a lot to deal with. His mother is ill, and has been for some time. His father abandoned them years ago and moved out of the country with his new wife. And a sociopathic school bully has singling him out for continuous abuse. So, in some sense it isn’t surprising when he is confronted with a preternatural being in the form of a walking, talking, threateningly enigmatic yew tree.
“Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.”
In some vague echo of a Christmas Carol, the tree makes nightly visits to rather cinematically share three stories. And not just any stories, but true stories—of the sort that are twisted up with complicated conclusions that seem intended to invoke confusion, outrage, and (presumably) introspection in young Conor (and, perhaps also, in readers.)
Though it is a little slow to start, it is well worth waiting for the pacing to pick up. Conor is a flawed character from the start—angry, avoidant, and self-destructive. But his situation makes him almost immediately sympathetic.
Note: This story was based on an original idea supplied to Patrick Ness by author Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer in 2007. And when one knows this bit of context, the extent of the intended tribute becomes clear. I consistently see reviewers mention that this is their favorite of Ness’ works, or that it’s SO different from his other stories—and that’s completely understandable. Ness paid a great honor to his literary colleague by essentially co-authoring the book that she would have written… had she been allowed the time, energy, and lifespan.
This story confronts grief, loss, depression, and guilt with a directness uncommon to literature targeting a middle grade audience. Which makes it particularly valuable, both to youth who can unfortunately relate… and in supplying a vehicle for empathy to those who can’t (yet.) While this isn’t the kind of story with a “happy” ending, the ending does realistically satisfy. And it may grant some permission to acknowledge and more effectively cope with their own personal monsters.
“Don't think you haven't lived long enough to have a story to tell.”
This story packs a punch. With spare, powerful prose the author portrays a character growing increasingly angry and isolated from the world around him. The imagery is surreal and poignant, and often it's difficult to tell what is real and what isn't. Because the hero often struggles to determine (or admit) what is real and what isn't, the imagery is a nice echo of what is going on in the character's mind.
For such a fast read, this story has depth and heart for a discerning reader to reflect on. The pacing is quick, but the story itself feels like it slowly unfolds, the tension increasing with every chapter until the reader is scared to peel back the final layer and look at the truth that lies beneath.
Truth is the heart of this book. In a story that deals with grief, anger, isolation, and loss in such a short span of time, there is a danger of skimming the surface or giving the character an easy way out. Mr. Ness avoids these pitfalls and instead strips the story to its basic elements and gives both the hero and the reader and unflinching dose of truth that might be exactly what a reader struggling with those same issues desperately needs to hear.
This is a book I will push into readers' hands for a very long time. I recommend it for classrooms, libraries, and homeschoolers looking for a powerful book (with an in-depth discussion guide included!) for their upper middle grade to high school students.
Powerful, evocative, and utterly compelling, A MONSTER CALLS is a must read.
Obviously, A Monster Calls came to me HIGHLY recommended from friends with great taste. That’s always exciting, but also a wee bit terrifying. What if I don’t like this book so many people told me was absolutely amazing? What if I have to be the black sheep, sounding my disgruntled, lonely bleat across the book blogging world? Buuuut, thankfully, that’s not an issue, because I definitely see why A Monster Calls has gathered such acclaim.
From the first few pages, the ultimate point of the novel was obvious to me. For younger readers, it could conceivably be a twisty ending, but I think most adults will see where things are headed. This is, however, not a bad thing. There’s a lot of value in the telling of the story, and it’s not meant to be a shock. In fact, I think the knowing what’s coming and hoping for something else is the emotional response which Ness hoped to evoke. The reader’s journey mirrors Conor’s.
On the surface, A Monster Calls is a fantasy horror novel. The opening scenes fit that mold perfectly as young Conor awakes to see a monster approaching his window. The yew tree across the street forms itself into a humanoid shape and comes to Conor. Having seen a worse monster, Conor’s not afraid, even when this new monster destroys his bedroom and brings Conor toward its monstrous mouth.
The horror scenes form a captivating hook, luring the reader into a story of surprising depth and sadness. What soon becomes apparent, however, is that A Monster Calls is not actually a horror novel, or at least the horrors involved are ones of a real life existence, the horrors of cancer and bullying. As his mother battles cancer, Conor steps up to help keep the house clean and himself fed. He’s supportive and loving, fearful that his father in America or his grandma will try to take him away.
The dreams, which affect his reality, help him cope, even without his realizing. He runs through the phases of grief, aided by the monster. It’s magical realism at its finest. I especially loved the tales the tree told and the way that the morals of the stories were never what Conor expected. Real life doesn’t fall out into neat scenarios like fairy tales do, and Ness exhibited that so clearly with this construct.
Accompanying the sparse but powerfully evocative text are gorgeous illustrations, like the one above. Jim Kay’s illustrations fit the novel impeccably, and bring the novel to the next level. While A Monster Calls without the illustrations would still be powerful, the illustrations bump it up to epic and will help cement the story in the reader’s memory. They’re beautiful, creepy, dark and haunting.
What Left Me Wanting More:
The only reason I didn’t rate A Monster Calls any higher is that I didn’t really connect with it emotionally. Yes, friends, I’m a robot. I did not cry, though I did feel sad for the kid. Actually, I think I came closest to crying reading Ness’ note about Siobhan Dowd at the beginning. There you have it. I’m emotionally-stunted and failed to get all of the feels from this that I probably should have. Oh well. I suppose I also would like to know a bit more about Conor’s life at the end, but I can see why it ended where it did.
The Final Verdict:
So yeah, if you haven’t read this one yet, you should probably get to it soon, especially since it’s so short and easy to sneak into your reading piles. And, should you be softer-hearted than myself, you might want a box of tissues at your side.
This is a difficult book to review and is one of those "you must go in blind" sort of books. The plot is simple and straight forward, following a young, troubled boy with is visited every night by a monster. Finding out why is the crux of the novel and easily relatable to anyone who has lost a loved one. Each reader is bound to experience this book in a different way depending on their own personal life experiences, but it's such a powerful read.
I remember the first time a book made me cry like this. I was in eighth grade in my English class, sitting under my desk in the back of the room reading A Walk to Remember. If you've read that book you will probably understand why I cried. I'm naturally an emotional person, you see. I cry easily if I see another's suffering. At the time I was fortunate enough to not have yet experience the feeling of losing someone close to you. Unfortunately, I know that feeling all too well now and that is the reason I was initially afraid to read A Monster Calls. I saw my GoodReads friends reading and reviewing the book, but I couldn't bring myself to add it to my shelf. I had an idea of where it could take me emotionally, and it's not a place I choose to visit. I keep those memories locked up and tucked away. But this book made me remember. It made me remember the phone call. It made me remember the shock, the pain, the regret, the denial, the limo ride, the funeral, the casket, the anger, the depression, the trials. It made me remember my brother, who on some days I choose to forget because it's easier that way. Maybe that sounds horrible, but it's true. It's an awful truth.
So, how do you write a review for a book that makes you remember? How can I describe in words how unbelievably vulnerable this book can make you feel? How do I explain the beauty of the frailty? I simply can't. My advice would be to go into this book blind. You have to or you risk doing a disservice to yourself, this book and the wonderful story within its pages. I suppose you are just going to have to trust me when I say A Monster Calls is beyond amazing. It's about loss, acceptance, grief, facing your fears, and letting go. This book made me laugh, made me think, tore out my heart, made me cry, and healed me. I hope, no, I know it will do the same for others...
As many reviewers have mentioned, you really must read the paper copy of this book so that you don't miss out on the beautiful, dark, and sometimes haunting illustrations that accompany this story. They were done by the incredibly talented Jim Kay, and some samples can be found on his website.
Coner is a character that everyone can relate to, whether they've been in the same situation as him or not. He feels invisible, misunderstood, angry, and confused. His complete belief and hope in his mother's recovery was both inspiring and heartbreaking, and there were many times where I just wanted to reach into the book and hug him.
I just loved the monster. To me, he was the embodiment of truth: paradoxical in all ways, and not always the easiest to face. As the yew tree, the monster was both capable of healing (through the treatment) and harming (through the poisonous berries) an individual. It was able to show Coner difficult and confusing truths about the world itself: that good and evil aren't as clear-cut as we'd like to imagine; that sometimes being seen is worse than being invisible; that stories are incredibly important; that sometimes it's easier to lie to ourselves than to face the truth. Most importantly, though, the monster showed Coner the truth that he had been hiding from himself, and how his thoughts are just that: thoughts.
A Monster Calls is something that everyone should read, whether they've experienced loss or not. We cannot all have a monster calling our name to teach us important truths, which is why this story is so important: it's beautiful, powerful, heart-wrenching, and healing. It reminds us to treasure every moment, to love fiercely, and to forgive both ourselves and those around us. It's a story that touched me personally, and will resonate with me for quite some time.
I think that the book is very puzzling foe me to undstand.
this book should have a sequal but that might ruin it though. I love this book and I would read it again!
Though it includes the supernatural, this book is realistic and portrays school life particularly well. The characters are well crafted and each have a part to play in the story. Their conversations are real, they react to the situation just as people in their position would. Because of this, readers become very involved with the story.
This book is heartrending and will make grief and loss real even for those who have never lost someone in their life. The inevitable ending is always at the back of readers' minds but when it comes it is sadder than ever. This poignant and moving story will make readers sad long after they have read the final page. This book had me on the verge of tears.