A Monster Calls: When the Wild Things Grow Up

Most young adult fantasies are safely detached from the real world. They exist in fictitious lands that bare only certain semblances to our lives. While many tackle familiar issues, the screen of the alien is always there to obscure everything. Not too much for the message to be lost, just enough for it to be fun. A Monster Calls smashes through that screen, picking the reader up into a world feels every bit as beautiful and terrible as the one we wake into each day of our lives.

The story follows Conor O’Malley, a thirteen-year-old boy with a very sick mother. In the months since she was diagnosed, Conor’s reality has been obliterated. He is no longer just another boy at school. He is forced in frequent contact with his grandma (a woman he does not relate to) and is told over and over again that people cannot imagine what he is going through. Conor wants his life back to simplicity.

The opening of this book grabbed me. It begins with Conor dreaming or, more accurately, waking up from a nightmare – only to discover that a monster has come to his house. The enormous creature, born from the yew tree in the backyard, breaks through the windows and lifts Conor high into the air, threatening to eat him. In all this, Conor’s only reaction is “get on with it.”

A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness.

This tells the reader a lot very quickly about the psyche of the protagonist.

Well, despite its opening, this is not that kind of horror story. The monster does not exist to torment Conor. To the contrary, it says it came only because he summoned it, and will leave once its task has been completed.

If I had to compare A Monster Calls to another work of fiction, it would be The Book Thief. Like that book, this uses fantasy to talk about the darker truths of human existence. Unlike Death in The Book Thief, however, the monster feels like a much larger (get it?) force in the story. It participates in the action rather than simply narrating.

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Unlike Death in The Book Thief, the monster is made limited. This helps to fully realize it as a character.

The language of this book is simple and it uses illustration very well. It captures a stage of life as fully and clearly as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Yet this book is more focused on growing up (like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are) and what exactly that can mean.

One more thing that warrants mentioning, and that is how the creation of this book mirrors its subject matter. A Monster Calls was written by Patrick Ness, but conceived by Siobhan Dowd. Dowd got the idea during her own terminal illness but passed away before the project could get off the ground. Ness stepped in and took up the story that she began. “Stories are wild creatures” – that is what the monster says. A Monster Calls is a testament to this statement. It strikes realer than any caged creation and is one of the few books that can be read in a day but will stay in the mind for far longer than that.

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Siobhan Dowd wrote four award-winning young adult novels in her lifetime. Sadly, her cancer claimed her before she could finish her fifth. When asked about her contribution to A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness said: “She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.”

By the way, I am aware of the film adaptation that was just released but have not seen it (yet). Hope to remedy that tonight!

Update (1/12/17): For those wondering, the film adaptation is smart and concise. It loses a fairly large character but does this to consolidate focus of the film onto the family. While the storytelling nature of the book may not translate perfectly to visual media, filmmaker J.A. Bayona uses watercolors to bring the tales to life in a very appealing way. The performances are strong and the truth of the tale is maintained. I would recommend seeing this in theaters if possible.

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