I started writing this post a few months ago, titling it “The Saddest Children’s Book Ever”. And then I double-checked the age of the main character, and found that Conor is thirteen, and a lot of people have been calling it a YA novel. So I didn’t finish it.
But I find that Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls feels to me like the book that really slipped through the cracks of the award process. I certainly also expected Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck to get more love, but Selznick writes a sort of book that is clearly going to have trouble finding its proper shelf in a children’s department–is it a picture book, or a novel? So it’s not surprising that a book that is neither wholly one or the other picks up an award–getting the Caldecott for The Invention of Hugo Cabret was pretty remarkable.
A Monster Calls fell through the cracks in a different way, and here’s my theory about why. The book began from an idea by wonderful Irish author Siobhan Dowd when she was dying of breast cancer. The equally wonderful American/English author Patrick Ness took the idea and created a book that imaginatively gets to the heart of the horror an older child feels when faced with his mother’s illness. The mysterious monster–an ancient yew tree that comes to life to talk with Conor–is terrifying. Conor himself, in an episode of supreme fury and destructiveness, becomes terrifying. But neither of them are nearly as terrifying as the prospect of watching your mother die.
That, I think, is why the story didn’t get an award. It didn’t get the Printz Award for the best young adult book, because it’s not really a young adult book. Young adults are certainly a key audience for the book, but it isn’t a book about being a young adult. It’s a book about being a kid. So why didn’t it get the Newbery? I don’t know–I wasn’t in their discussions, I didn’t do the reading they did, and I don’t know how it compares with the other books they voted on. But my guess is that it didn’t pick up one of the honors, at least, because sometimes people have a really difficult time giving children the books that communicate with complete and visceral honesty how painful life can be. It just feels like it can’t be meant for children when it’s that hard. So they try to slot it in with the young adult books, which heaven knows are FULL of painful truths. But it’s not quite the right fit.
That may not be right at all. Award committees in my experience are extremely thoughtful, and try hard to give each book its due. So I am not criticizing any of the award committees. I am just mourning that such a great book didn’t get honored.
It is a wonderful book. I trust that at least it will appear on the Notables and Best Fiction for Young Adult lists. And it is for me, the saddest children’s book ever. You should read it.