By Patrick Ness (Candlewick Press; 2011)
Understand: this children’s novel, which won several prestigious awards and sports a wealth of orgasmic blurbs, isn’t a bad book, just an annoying one. It reminds me of why as a youngster I so disliked kid-oriented fiction and film (and made a point of graduating to grown-up media long before actually attaining adulthood). A MONSTER CALLS is well written and has some effective elements, but it’s enormously self-important and message-heavy, with the haughty, all-knowing air that suffuses so many kid books, which tend to function more as teaching aids than entertainment.
The young Conor is suffering from nightmares when one night at 12:07 AM a monster, formed of the yew tree outside his bedroom window, turns up. As rendered in the magnificently impressionistic black and white illustrations of Jim Kay, this creature is a terrifically imposing, nightmarish creation, although in the text it turns out to be a nice monster whose motivation is to help Conor.
Conor’s situation is a tough one without question: his mother is in the late stages of terminal cancer and he, understandably, is having trouble coming to terms with the facts of her impending death, and his own complex reactions to it. To make matters worse, he gets picked on incessantly by his schoolmates and is forced to move in with his grandmother.
Author Patrick Ness, working from an idea by the renowned children’s book author Siobhan Dowd (who died before she could flesh out her concept), has a talent for baroque description (“The nightmare feeling was rising…making everything seem heavy and impossible, like he’d been asked to lift a mountain with his bare hands and no one would let him leave until he did”). Ness also deserves credit for never sugar-coating Conor’s travails; the possibility that there may exist a cure for Conor’s mother’s cancer is teased, but the harsh realities of her condition are faced up to with admirable forthrightness.
I, however, have an aversion to nice monsters, and nor did I cotton to the sweet little girl schoolmate character who turns up early on, a character who exists only to console the protagonist (and doesn’t mind that he’s mean to her). And let’s not forget the all-important Overriding Message, which the author makes damn sure we can’t possibly overlook or ignore. So while A MONSTER CALLS has plenty to recommend, it suffers from an excess of kid book BS–and to borrow an oft-used quote from the late Samuel Goldwyn: “If you want to send a message use Western Union.”