There's been talk lately about whether children's books should tackle hard subjects. This one's a no-brainer for me. They should.
Kids read for truth and their world is not the cheery candy-colored confection adults strive so mightily to create. They should be given hope, yes. But hope without reality is about as satisfying as cotton candy.
Kids know there's more out there - things we're not telling them - and they deserve the truth.
I came to A Monster Calls by way of Siobhan Dowd's book A Swift Pure Cry. It's a masterpiece. If you haven't read it yet, you can do that now. I'll wait.
Okay, now that you're back, the sad news. Siobhan Dowd was working on A Monster Calls before she died of cancer. Patrick Ness took on the project and you can see his interview about it here.
It's a powerful story that doesn't skimp on the hard truths and it offers hope to anyone who's had to face something fearful, including themselves.
Conor struggles with his mother’s illness and, we realize, imminent death. He’s full of resentment at having to care for himself, anger at being bullied at school, hate toward his best friend who told the other kids about his mother’s illness. He dislikes his atypical grandmother and believes she dislikes him.
The story is relentless, and the creature that appears from page one is a terror. In spite of this drum-beat of negativity, we read on, sympathy for Conor growing stronger and curiosity pulling us through the darkness because we want to understand fully what he’s hiding from. We hope he will overcome.
From the beginning, we know Conor is haunted by two things: a nightmare, and a monster. They are not the same. The book opens with this:
“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.
Conor was awake when it came.
He’d had a nightmare. Well, not a nightmare. The nightmare. (1)
Conor hides his nightmare.
“What happened in the nightmare was something no one else ever needed to know.” (2)
This hiding from us is mirrored in the invisibility he feels around his mother’s illness. He’s been set apart from normal. He can’t remember what it was like to have a dad in the house (27) even though he thinks about it. There’s an emptiness around him at school. Who hasn't felt this way at some point?
Conor blames his former best friend Lily for telling people about his mother and he’s vowed to never forgive her. (27) The “never forgiving” is juxtaposed against the last fun night with his mother, how they’d eaten out, seen a movie and how “anything had seemed possible.” (24) The two things he’ll never forget are the polar ends of his feelings.
When the monster comes, he brings a bargain. Conor has called for him, he says. And he’ll tell Conor three stories then Conor has to tell the monster Conor’s truth. If he doesn’t? “Then I will eat you alive. And its mouth opened impossibly wide, wide enough to eat the whole world, wide enough to make Conor disappear forever—” (37)
Here, we know that if Conor doesn’t tell his story, he’ll disappear. That’s why we keep reading. There’s an urgent idea tucked in this fairy-tale bargain: if you don’t confront your truth, it will devour you alive. Children, like all of us, want to know how to tell the horrible truths they know, imagined and real.
In the heart of the story, as we realize Conor’s mother is deathly ill and he will end up living with his grandmother, and after Dad has dropped Conor off at Grandma’s house, telling Conor he can’t come to America with Dad but must stay here instead, Conor destroys Grandma’s priceless pendulum clock. Then, the monster visits Conor and tells him the second story, which angers Conor. “The monster’s fist immediately lashed out and struck the stone hearth [of the story house] from its foundations. The brick chimney tumbling down on top of it in a loud clatter. Conor’s breath got heavier still, like he was the one doing the destroying.” (110) The yew-man continues with the destruction and we recognize the suppressed rage Conor has been feeling - the monster in him – is Conor's anger at his Grandmother and Lily.
“Conor stood there in shock. He looked down at his hands, which were covered in scratches and blood, his fingernails torn and ragged, aching from the labor. ‘Oh my God,’ he whispered. He turned around to face the monster. Which was no longer there. ‘What did you do?’ he shouted into the suddenly too quiet emptiness. He could barely move his feet from all the destroyed rubbish on the floor. There was no way he could have done all this himself. No way. (…was there?)” (116).
When Grandma discovers all the destruction she screams a horrible sound and destroys the only thing he hadn’t, a cabinet. Then she leaves him alone and goes to her room. This is a more devastating reaction than if she’d yelled at him, been angry, or scolded him. Conor is disappearing as people turn from him.
Even the bully won’t hit him, instead walking away, “As he left Conor standing there alone. Like he was completely invisible to the rest of the world.” (126) This is the worst thing, to be invisible.
Everything in the story turns around this point. Conor wants to be seen. The Yew-monster is asking for his truth – to make himself visible – but Conor resists because he believes his truth is unseeable, unlovable, loathsome.
When he fights with bully Harry, channeling the Yew-man and his internal rage, the headmistress refuses to punish him. The people around him feel sorry for him. They see his pain, but they’re not seeing the deeper truth of Conor’s nightmare. The thing he's afraid of.
His longing for a reaction, to be punished is so strong and we can’t fully understand what’s behind it until Conor tells his story, fulfilling the bargain and resolving the story. The nightmare, the thing he’s most afraid of, is that he lets his mother fall over a cliff. The guilt of wanting a parent to be gone, for them to be free of pain, is overwhelmingly “bad” for Conor, but it is his truth.
“ ‘I can’t stand it anymore!’ he cried out as the fire raged around him. ‘I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go! I just want it to be over! I want it to be finished!’
And then the fire ate the world, wiping away everything, wiping him away with it.
He welcomed it with relief, because it was, at last, the punishment he deserved.” (188)
The book ends with his realization that the yew tree, the healing tree, is there to heal him, not his mother. Not punishment, but relief. This is the resolution to the pain and the yew-tree’s demand to “tell me your truth” that we’ve been reading for.
I think the power of this story comes from the universal truth that all of us have feelings we believe to be unlovable, wrong, or shameful. When they’re buried inside, they do, indeed, devour us from within. The Yew-man was, for me, the universal longing to speak those truths and be released from them.
He doesn’t make it all better for Conor. Conor’s mother dies, he’s had the nightmare and his feelings, but there’s an acceptance offered in exchange for the truth. That’s an important truth that a powerful story can heal a nightmare at any age.
Ness, Patrick. A Monster Calls. Candlewick Press, 2011.