July 7, 2012

A Monster Calls

A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness; Illustrated by Jim Kay (Candlewick Press, 2011)
GENRE: Horror
HONORS: Carnegie Medal (2012); Greenaway Medal (2012); various "Best of 2011" lists, including Booklist's for youth fiction

REVIEW: Any summary will do a disservice to A Monster Calls - it is not a book easily summarized and to do so renders it's subtleties flat or, even worse, nonexistent. Suffice it to say, that a monster comes to Conor O'Malley, a thirteen year old boy whose mother is dying. Through repeated meetings (all of which take place at 12:07 - a time whose profound and unsettling significance is only hinted toward the end), during which the monster tells him three separate stories, Conor faces the nightmare that has plagued him since his mum got sick. Ness's prose is subtle and incisive. Although there is nothing showy about it, his words are profound. Even more impressive, however, is the monster - horrifying, gorgeous and metaphorically towering, the monster is a challenging figure, neither evil nor good, one whose ultimate purpose is frightening, but not in the way one might think. Kay's inky illustrations set the tone for the tale - sooty, dark and confusing - beautifully framing a story that builds to a masterful, natural climax. There is no false step in this book. It is perfect and painful. Most impressively with this subject matter, it rings emotionally true.

OPINION: A Monster Calls is a special book. Without wishing to gush or sound fatuous, it is one of the most incisive, metaphorically sound books I have ever read. Best digested in a single sitting, A Monster Calls is a profoundly moving portrait of grief, denial and catharsis, written by an author with an instinctive understanding of, and empathy for, those trapped in that emotional landscape. It's a frightening book fully of foreboding atmosphere and inevitable hurt. But it is an important book - one whose central truth resonates with the same wild force as the stories that the monster tells.

IDEAS: This is not standard, boo-scare horror. Though younger tweens can read it and get something from it, it will most likely resonate more strongly with readers 12 and up. I would recommend it enthusiastically while keeping the potential reader's age and emotional maturity in mind. It is also a wonderful book for classroom discussions on metaphor, tone, characterization and story structure, and a natural fit for young people struggling with loss and grief.

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