Monday, October 24, 2011

A Monster Calls

I can only think of two ideal readers for A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness. A middle grade student with a terminally ill parent, and an adult reader, marveling at the brilliance of Ness's beautiful prose and storytelling ability. Other than that, while powerful and moving, I cannot say A MONSTER CALLS is a book for everyone.

At 12:07 am, Conor is visited by a monster. However this is not the monster Conor has been expecting. This monster has come to help Conor face a truth he has been avoiding. Conor and the monster strike up a deal. The monster will tell Conor three stories and then Conor in turn, will tell the monster the truth. If only it were that easy.

I would hate for a student to pick this book up expecting a frightful ghost story, something along the lines of Alvin Schwartz's SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. The creepy cover image and the incredible illustrations that wrap themselves around the text throughout the story may give that impression. Such a reader would be sorely disappointed.

What we get from Ness (inspired by an idea from the late Siobhan Dowd) is much more scary than ghosts and ghouls though. We are forced to witness a child learning how to let go of his mother when her cancer treatments begin to fail her. It's difficult to describe how well Patrick Ness has balanced his beautiful prose (reminiscent of Gaiman's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK) with some truly violent, raw, heart-wrenching scenes. But he does so in a way that is unlike anything else I've read in a children's book before.

I'm just not sure many children will get this, let alone like it. I think some could relate to Conor's smug tone, but I'm not sure many others would actually like Conor enough to care about him. Plus, the book is incredibly dark and dreary, with not a lot helping ease the feeling. One 'product description' I read somewhere used the word "funny" to describe this novel. I don't see it. Nothing about this book is funny or lighthearted. It's devastating actually.

But it is good. It's very good. One could learn a thing or two from Ness, in how to craft a story. It's an eerie character study of how one's impending grief can consume them like a monster. Of how the various stages of grief, some ugly, some mean, some fond and loving, can take control of us as those we love leave this world.

Final Grade: A-

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