This is a beautifully written YA novel that is appropriate for all ages and deals with a terrifying topic: the illness of a parent. The idea for A Monster Calls originated with writer Siobhan Dowd who died before she could write it. Author Patrick Ness was approached to create a story from Dowd’s notes, and he has produced a painfully honest and sad account of how a 13-year-old boy handles the illness of his mother. You will cry, but this story is so beautiful and true, with such a wonderful message, you will be glad you read it and will most likely know of people who would benefit from reading it as well.
Conor O’Malley is struggling. His mother has cancer. His father lives in America with his second wife and baby. His grandmother seems cold and overbearing. He is angry with his friend Lily, and the school bully Harry is on Conor’s case. Worst of all though is the nightmare that has been plaguing Conor’s dreams for the past year. He never mentions it to anyone, and he tries to suppress all thought of it. The reader does not know what happens in this nightmare, only that it features a monster. Unexpectedly one night, Conor hears a voice outside his window and discovers a monster of another sort: the yew tree from the churchyard on the hill has sprung limbs and walked to his window. Conor is not afraid of this monster, even though he is large, strong and intimidating. He’s nothing compared to the monster of his nightmare, but the yew tree monster tells Conor that he – Conor – summoned him. The yew tree monster is going to tell Conor three stories over the next nights, and when he is finished, Conor must tell the fourth story — the story of his truth, of his nightmare.
The three stories confound Conor because in them, good people sometimes do bad things, bad people are sometimes innocent, and the endings are not happy or just from Conor’s point of view. Meanwhile, the bullying incidents at school continue and Conor refuses to speak up about them for reasons that are revealed near the end of the story. And Conor’s mother’s condition worsens; she is not responding to medications as had been hoped and must go to the hospital. Conor has to go live with his grandmother, and he feels more and more isolated. Conor is hoping that the yew tree monster might somehow be able to save his mother, but as Ness draws the reader to the end of the third story and into Conor’s nightmare, it’s clear that the yew tree monster has a different purpose.
I’m trying not to reveal spoilers but this novel is powerful because it allows Conor to feel what he feels — to rage, to weep, to feel guilty and angry and sad. One of the important messages, and this is important whether you’re a kid or an adult, is that humans are full of contradictions. We can hold multiple contradictory thoughts in our head throughout every day, and that’s ok. It’s not what we think that matters but rather what we do. Another important message is that sometimes the people you think are bad can actually be ok, and sometimes the people you love and trust might disappoint you. And yet you can get through it all and experience healing if you are honest with yourself about your feelings and tell your truth. I think it’s important for kids to learn this from an early age and for the rest of us not to forget it as we grow older.