Ness, P. (2011). A monster calls: Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Author Siobhan Dowd died from cancer in 2007 before finishing this book, and Patrick Ness completed it at the request of her publisher. The novel is a fantasy built on the unrelenting reality 13-year-old Conor O’Malley faces as his mother is dying, also from cancer. Set in England, the plot finds Conor virtually alone as he faces the looming catastrophe. He hates his grandmother for her bossiness and stubbornness even though she will undoubtedly inherit his care since his father has remarried and has a new wife and child in the United States. He is bullied at school and has shut out his former childhood best friend while the disease continues to ravage and waste the only person he really cares about. Many nights at exactly 12:07 a.m., a monster, apparently the yew tree behind the house, comes to him wherever he is. The creature is horrific and terrifying; he tells Conor a series of seemingly random bizarre tales and demands in return a story that must contain the troubled boy’s truth. Is the monster a frightening nightmare? Then what is the source of the yew berries and leaves left on his bedroom floor after a visit? Who destroys the grandmother’s sitting room in an act of violence? Who lands the school bully in the hospital after a ferocious beating?
A children’s story, but much, much more, Ness uses his skills to produce a staccato-like narrative that draws the reader into the compelling and tragic tale. The book could become maudlin, but humor seeps through the horror of both plotlines. Conor has to know his mother is dying, and all the last-ditch efforts being tried are not going to stop the course of the disease. The suspense is whether he can survive both terrors.
Dr. Judith A. Hayn is an associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
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