A MONSTER CALLS was written from an original idea by author Siobhan Dowd who started the story and died of cancer before she could write it. An editor at Walker Books contacted Ness to write the book after she died. That right there should tell you something about the nature of this book.
The monster showed up 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…
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth
I don’t know if one could get through this book without having some sort of emotional response, especially if the reader has ever lost a loved one. This book triggers all those feelings one has as the loved one slips away. That helplessness, that anger.
I don’t know that this book is for every child. The language is that of a middle grade novel, but it deals with complex, real life, issues. It is a serious story about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer (this is not a spoiler). There are no harps and roses. The real monsters in this book, are the kind we will eventually have to deal with in real life.
This is not to say that I think kids shouldn’t read about serious issues (see Wonder and Mockingbird). I’m just saying take into consideration the sensitivity and maturity of the child (especially if he or she has recently lost a loved one). Then again, kids can surprise us by how much they can handle.
Yes, there is a monster in this book (a yew tree that turns into a giant), but Connor is not frightened by this monster, he’s frightened of the monster within him. The story is really about how our feelings of guilt and anger can eat us up, how we are our own worst enemies sometimes, and how we need to forgive ourselves.
The main character has anger issues, and rightly so, but in the story he does a few things so heinous, that I found myself wishing them undone. There is nothing offensive or graphic in the story, but it still may disturb some children. On the other hand, it could be used as a great healing tool for both children and adults.
I’ve seen some label this as fantasy and some label it as horror. I don’t think either label quite does the job. When the monster calls, he tells Conor three stories that come across as fairy tales, but they each have twisted and complex endings that don’t make sense in the world of right and wrong that children live in. That’s something they will eventually learn; that in life, sometimes there are no clean answers.
The artwork, by Jim Kay, is dark and disturbing, and complements the tone of the book.
NOTE: I realized later that I didn’t state whether I enjoyed the book or not! I thought it was engaging, thought-provoking, and well-conceived..