Tuesday, March 20, 2012

REVIEW: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness


A Monster Calls
by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd

"What do you want from me?" Conor said.
The monster pressed it's face close to the window.
It's not what I want from you, Conor O'Malley, it said. It is what you want from me. 
"I don't want anything from you," Conor said.
Not yet, said the monster. But you will. 

13-year old Conor O'Malley has a nightmare every night. He is in the dark surrounded by wind and screaming, trying despirately to keep hold of someone's hand, but that hand slips out of his grasp. It all started when he was told his mom had cancer. So you can imagine when a monster visits his house in the middle of the night, his response is, "I've seen worse."

The monster makes him a deal. He will tell Connor three stories of times when the monster walked abroad and meddled in the affairs of men. Then, Conor must tell the monster a story. Conor's story. The truth about himself. Only then will the monster leave. 

I went through a roller coaster with this story. I was excited and thought "What a terrifying-looking book" when I discovered it. When I got it out of the library, I was a bit surprised and disappointed when I found it in the juvenile section. Then I read it, and it was everything I could have hoped, and more. It was really dark and often cruel. It didn't talk down to kids, or soften terrible events because the author thought they couldn't handle it. It told them the truth. 

Conor has had to take care of himself since his Mom started the chemo. She's often too tired to make breakfast or clean the dishes. He does what needs to be done. His best friend, Lily, told everyone at school about his mom and now everyone tip toes around him. The teachers don't call on him, and when he acts out, he isn't punished because of his "special circumstances." He is almost invisible, and he can't forgive Lily for that. His mom is trying to be brave and optimistic for him, and he is trying to be brave and optimistic for her. The grandmother is trying to make him see the reality of the situation, that he needs to start preparing for "after," and he angrily shuts her out. His father doesn't want him.

When the monster visits, you are always questioning his motivations. His stories are ambiguous fairy tales, no clear heroes or villains, and sometimes the "wrong" person gets punished. As he tells the stories, the monster guides Conor through his grief, sometimes tenderly, sometimes brutally. Through the magic of a story, the monster often makes Conor act out violently, with real-life repercussions. It is a wrenching process for both Conor and the reader, and you don't know if the monster is causing more damage than good. At the end, you see, however, that it is exactly what Conor needed. 

This story is beautifully told, the way the colors of a bruise are beautiful, or a deadly blade is beautiful. It hurts you as it heals you. 

The illustrations are terrifying silhouettes, almost like Sin City for kids. The artist makes a lovely transition from the monster being a figure of fear to a figure of comfort.

Check out the beautiful book trailer to see some if the illustrations animated: 

I have never really read another book like this, but books that teeter on the edge of this are:
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

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