When I was in high school, we lost my stepfather to lung cancer. He was sick for a full two years and passed away right before my sophomore year midterms. That experience is still so vivid in my memory that it overshadows and colors a great deal of my high school experience. It made me awkward and quiet for the first two years of high school, a 180 from the boisterous kid I had been. And not an advantage when I switched from public to Catholic school for ninth grade and knew absolutely no one. I disappeared almost entirely into an obsession with movies to avoid thinking about death and my own mortality every single day. Some kids were mean. I was awkward. Guidance counselors wanted to talk about it, and I found myself inventing feelings about the situation to make them feel better, to give them a problem they could solve to soothe their extremely kind and earnest need to help me process the experience. I felt empathy for them because they so wanted to fix it.
But dealing with illness and loss doesn’t work like that, especially for kids. It’s hard to process the truth that no one is immortal, and harder to watch mortality unfold. I went through grieving in my own time, and by the end of high school I was a completely different person. In college it was like a cage was opened, and out I flew.
But prolonged illnesses leave a mark on everyone nearby. I make quilts for illness rather than offer words, because I honestly just don’t know how to talk about such things. I strategize how I would cope if someone close to me vanished tomorrow, because I cannot bear the thought of being caught by surprise and out of control with grief.
Which is all leading up to say, Good Lord do I love A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd. I was really hoping it would get some Newbery attention despite some questions of its eligibility, but it did walk away with the 2012 Carnegie Medal (the UK equivalent). And it took me ages to write about it. I finished this book in December of 2011, while I was pregnant, but every time I sat down to write about it I stopped. Even though everyone was talking about this book at the time, I couldn’t join the conversation. For me it was the kind of reading experience that I wanted to keep to myself, to protect from over-analysis and over-thinking. I loved it so much that I wanted my thoughts about it to just stay mine for a little while. I didn’t write about it until June of 2012, well after my daughter was born.
This is the kind of smart, chilling, honest writing for children that treats their inner lives with respect and acknowledges their intelligence. There are a lot of writers who achieve this masterfully and plenty who do not. But what Patrick Ness accomplishes here, working from an idea started by Siobhan Dowd before her untimely death from breast cancer, is just breathtaking. And scary. Boy, is this book scary. And surprisingly funny.
Conor is 13 and carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His parents are divorced, and his father has remarried and moved to America with his new family. His grandmother isn’t very grandmotherly, and the two of them never seem to see eye to eye. The school bully has taken a special and particularly brutal interest in him. His mother’s illness has returned, launching the two of them back into a tumultuous schedule of treatments and sickness. And he is having the same horrific nightmare each and every night.
So when the Monster calls at his bedroom window, Conor is just too exhausted to be frightened. It’s not the monster he was expecting from his nightmares, and since he has dreamt some truly frightening things, the wild monster yew tree is more of an inconvenience than anything. He cannot bring himself to care about this monster and its demands, but the ancient creature will not leave him alone. It wants to tell him three stories, and after that Conor must tell the tree about his own nightmare to truly be free of it.
It’s beautiful, haunting, and spot-on about the guilt and grief of loss at a young age. I related absolutely to the authenticity of Conor’s experience, and his catharsis at the end was masterfully handled. The illustrations by Jim Kay are perfection, and Jason Isaacs’ narration of the audio book is one of the best I’ve heard. Be warned that this is not for the youngest of kids. But it is powerful and important. This was the kind of book that was so absorbing I listened to it and read it; I needed to experience it in every way possible. One of the best children’s books of recent years.
A version of this post originally appeared on Jackie Reeve’s personal blog, The Orange Room.