Siobhan Dowd, author of four young adult books, did not begin writing until she was already into her 40’s. Being raised in London by Irish parents, and having spent decades helping others in outreach and activism, Siobhan wrote about what she knew. Her stories, set in Ireland and the UK, were about young adults and the troubles they face. Before Siobhan could publish anymore books though, she succumbed to a trouble of her own. In 2007 she lost her battle with breast cancer.
A short time ago, Patrick Ness, an American now living in England and winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Booktrust Teenage Prize, was asked to finish a book that Siobhan had started. “She had characters, a premise, and a beginning. What She didn’t have, unfortunately, is time.” He tells us. After reading what she had left and accepting the request “A Monster Calls” is where the inspiration has led him.
Thirteen year old Connor has been under a lot of stress lately. His dad left him and his mother a few years ago, and that was tough enough. Ever since he found out that his mother had cancer though, his world has turned upside down. His mother has to have treatments that make her sick. His grandmother, who is not easy to get along with, has been visiting more and telling him what to do. And people have been treating him differently as if he is not an individual; he is Connor, the boy with the sick mom.
With all that has been going on Connor begins having nightmares. He goes to sleep at night and has visions of “the darkness and the wind and the screaming… hands slipping from his grasp no matter how he tries to hold on.” It is the worst nightmare he has ever had. But then he begins having another nightmare, and in this nightmare he is visited by a monster. At first this nightmare scares him. The thought of the huge, angry looking monster causes him anxiety during his waking hours. Once Connor finally sees this monster up close though, he realizes that the monster from his first dream is much scarier. He begins to see that this new monster is old and earthly, and has actually come to help him, and he hopes against hope that helping him means helping his mother.
Ness tells us a serious and occasionally darkly humorous story about a boy who is too afraid to admit what he knows is inevitable, and it is eating him up inside. The addition of mysterious and eerie black, white, and gray drawings by jim kay add to the feeling of darkness which misleads you into thinking that the book is a typical horror story, but the horror in this book comes on a much deeper level. Through the use of three stories Connor’s monster helps him to come to grips with his feelings of unfairness, anger, and neglect, but most importantly it helps him to come to grips with the truth. This truth is Connor’s story, which he must learn to tell or it will eat him alive.
Dowd and Ness have brought to life a book about coping when loved ones have cancer. The story is emotional and raw. It is full of anger and despair. Do you know that ache in your throat that comes when you are trying to suppress tears and moans of utter grief and sadness? That is what this book is. “A Monster Calls” is heart-wrenchingly necessary, not to give hope, but to help people cope. So many of us need a monster to guide us through the emotions when disease strikes so close to home, but so often such a one is not found. To a small extent “A Monster Calls” fills that void.
There are many books with heart and feeling on book shelves today, but few have affected me the way this one has. Cancer doesn’t have to strike close to you to appreciate this book. Anyone who has dealt with the grief and sorrow of untimely loss can relate to Connor’s story.