Our November 2014 book was A Monster Calls and a small group of our steepers met to discuss the book. This one was chosen by Steeper Terri, who unfortunately couldn’t make it to our meeting. Notice this cool cover for “adults” that I found on the interwebz. I don’t know that I understand the need to have different covers for YA and adult readers, but I always do enjoy looking at them. The sad thing about this cover, however, is that it doesn’t have the artwork of Jim Kay. While The Hangman’s Daughter had a few images here or there in the book, this was our first book that had a lot of illustrations and let me tell you, they are amazing! I even told our group, this was the first time I felt cheated when reading an ebook version of a novel, because, while some of the illustrations were included, the print version has so much more. So much so that I put down my trusty ereader, and borrowed a print copy from the library.
A Monster Calls is the story of Conor O’Malley, a young boy whose mother is ill with cancer. Each night Conor is visited by a monster in the form of a giant yew tree in this back yard. The monster informs Conor that he will be told 3 stories and then will be expected to tell his story to the monster. Conor’s fear is that he’ll have to tell the monster about a recurring nightmare he’s been having. The book follows not only Conor’s visits with his yew monster, but also with his interactions at school with bullies, his former friend Lily, his absentee father, and his unaffectionate grandmother. The book was written by Patrick Ness, but inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd before her death from Cancer. It’s never really told how full the idea was from Dowd before Ness started writing the book.
One of the things that struck me specifically about this book was how Ness (and I guess Dowd) wrote the book or developed the idea around what was already popular for teens. The last several years has shown that not too many YA books are firmly planted in a realistic setting. Of course, with one of the most popular books this year (also dealing with cancer) being The Fault in Our Stars, we may see this trend shift, but ever since the popularity of magical series like Harry Potter, supernatural series like Twilight, and dystopian series like The Hunger Games, it was difficult to find a YA title that had no touch of supernaturalism to it. This book came out a while before The Fault in Our Stars and I felt that the style in which this heavy subject matter was approached, blended with the supernatural was very smart.
The book raised many questions for us, including whether or not the monster was real. Conor struggles with this too, believing that he’s dreaming initially, but upon finding leaves, berries, and a sapling in his room when he awakes, starts to think that his visitor is all too real. We then questioned just who is the monster? Some of us felt that the monster was God, telling morality tales to Conor to help prepare him for his mother’s death. Others of us felt that the monster was quite possibly Conor’s anger, guilt, and fear manifesting itself in a way he could handle. We all felt that the stories the monster told (mostly ending in ways that Conor had not expected) were a powerful way to remind the character and the reader that there are all kinds of people in the world and very few are all good or all bad.
All of us have had experience with illness or the death of a loved one, whether from cancer or not. We ended up having a conversation about anger and blame and our shared belief that no one should have to bury their child. I had a very personal connection to Conor, because much of his behavior and feelings I felt reflected my own experiences when my father was dying from cancer. I was especially struck when Conor mentally voices his irritation with his school mates and teachers who constantly either avoid him or ask him inane questions. I shared with the group how I nearly lost my temper with the nun who was my teacher when my dad was sick. Every morning she’d ask me how my dad was doing. Of course, now, as an adult, I understand that it was partly because she just didn’t know what else to say, it was a way of letting me know she was thinking about my family. My nine-year-old self, however, was just pissed off. How was he? He was dying. The next day he’d still be dying, and so on and so forth until the answer would be that he was dead. I don’t know what Patrick Ness’s experiences have been, but I felt he really hit the nail on the head with Conor’s emotions (not to mention his grandmother).
We all had some anectdotes to share about our own Grandmother’s in response to Conor’s detatched grandmother. Those of us who had the joyful grandparents who are positive constants in our lives, felt that Conor’s grandmother was cold and unrealistic. Those of us who’ve had a more aloof grandparent felt that she was a very realistic character. Once we reminded ourselves that this character’s daughter is dying, all bets about personality are off. She and Conor can come to an understanding that they both love a woman who is very ill and need to deal with it separately and together.
Read It & Steep thought that A Monster Calls turned out to be a very powerful read with a touch of whimsy and stunning imagery. It’s also a super quick and easy read that inspired lots of deep conversation.
We collectively gave it 4 teacups.