"Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both."
The Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is not the only children’s novel we have read recently; this week we have also finished A Monster Calls, a magnificent novel by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay.
A Monster Calls is a perfect example of a children’s novel that is also a work of art – through written for young people, it can be savored by adults with relish. More important, A Monster Calls is a profoundly moving book, which left Your Correspondent in tears upon its conclusion.
The novel concerns the trials of Conor O’Malley, a young boy struggling to find peace as his mother slowly dies of cancer. He is shuttled off to a seemingly uncaring grandmother, alternately pitied or bullied at school, and virtually ignored by a father who remarried and started a new family in the United States.
At the height of these crises, he is visited at night by a monster, who looks like a wild and gigantic willow tree. The monster alternately menaces and amuses Conor, telling him a series of stories.
Before the reader shrugs this off as so much Scheherazade-In-A-Fright-Wig for children, it’s important to note that the stories the monster tells are not simple morality tales. Rather, they are fairly grim and gritty stories that illustrated human duplicity and self-delusion, as well as an examination of the deep wells of anger and sadness that come with adulthood. One tale leaves Conor dazed in the ruins of his grandmother’s home after he trashes it in a fit, and another lead to his assaulting the school bully. In every respect, A Monster Calls is a profoundly adult novel.
A Monster Calls was originally started by author Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007) who could not write the novel because of her own, eventually fatal bout with cancer. The book was picked up (and extensively revised) by Ness (born 1971), who made the story his own. It is written with greatly humanity and insight, as well as subtlety of line.
And speaking of subtly of line, the book is graced with magnificent illustrations by Jim Kay. These dramatic, surreal and often nightmarish imaginings are an essential component of the book, and it would be difficult to gauge the ultimate efficacy of the novel without them. After finishing the novel, I returned to it several times in the succeeding days, simply to look at the illustrations. It’s not that they are beautiful – though they certainly have a wild grandeur – but they are powerful and provocative. It is important to note that both Ness and Kay won the Carnegie Medal and the Greenaway Medal in 2012 for A Monster Calls, the only books whose author and illustrator, whether two persons or won, have won both medals.
A Monster Calls will not be to all tastes, simply because it does not take any easy outs, and maintains a tragic note throughout. But this is a particularly human monster, one that underscores the sad fact that pain is a constant part of life, and that not all stories end happily.