A Monster Calls

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.

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7 Responses to A Monster Calls

  1. I loved this book… everything about it: the plot, the characters, the language, the illustrations. It has been years since I stayed awake at night to finish a book. I finished this one at 2:30 am. It is sad but it is extremely satisfying.

  2. Robin says:

    Oh, I need to read it. Dean read it twice and loved it. He wondered if there might have been some sort of hidden eligibility questions. Those are things we would never know.

    A colleague read it and it was his favorite of the year too, though he thought it might be an adult book. I will track down Dean’s copy before the next deadline overtakes me.

  3. Ali B. says:

    Hi Susan,
    Just read your kidlitosphere email. Welcome! I’m a newbie to kidlitosphere as well. I’m an aspiring writer of middle grades fiction, but reading is my first passion. My mother was a librarian. Hats off to you wonderful, hardworking, unsung heroes. My mom made me the reader/lover of books I am today. Librarians are some of my favorite people, so it is very nice to meet you (sorta) and read your blog.

    A Monster Calls sounds engrossing and sad. I’ll add it to my queue. I have so many young friends/mommies going through their own battles with serious illness that I don’t know if I’ll make it through, but I promise to try. It sounds too good to miss.

    Thank you for your suggestion. Please visit my very new blog at http://literarylunchbox.blogspot.com/

  4. sherylbooks says:

    I read A Monster Calls recently and I too loved everything about it.

    I am disappointed that it hasn’t received more attention, but I’m not all that surprised. For starters, it’s a difficult subject, and one that does not speak to every reader. Next, there is a question as to which category it best fits into, middle grade or young adult. As you point out, it’s a book whose point of view is firmly grounded in childhood even while the main character is on the cusp of being a young adult. I’m sure that the question of where to shelve it has been much discussed in both libraries and bookstores.

    Still, it is one of the most compelling books I’ve read recently and I do hope it finds it’s way into the hands of many. Awards are wonderful for bringing a book to the attention of readers. This is one of those books that probably won’t win many awards even though it is brilliant. Instead, it will likely be reliant on astute librarians, teachers, and other adults to put it into the hands of young readers who will most benefit from it. Thank you Susan for being one of those librarians.

  5. Sheila Ruth says:

    A Monster Calls is a finalist for the Cybils Awards, in the Middle Grade Fantasy/Science Fiction category, so while it may have slipped through the cracks in the ALA awards, at least one award has recognized it! You’re right that it was a difficult book to figure out which category it should be placed in. It probably could have gone in either the YA or MG categories, but based on various factors we placed it in SFF MG, and it did make the shortlist there.

  6. I felt doubtful about its appeal – despite Ness’ obvious talents, I didn’t buy his full trilogy b/c of lack of interest from my teens. However, a parent actually asked for this title – she said she’d heard it was good – so I went ahead and added it.

  7. Charlotte says:

    I agree that this is one more comfortable in the “middle grade” realm–I think kids are more likely to suspend their disbelief, and accept the Monster without being thrown out of the story because of wondering if it/he is real.

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