A Monster Calls is the only fictional book I’ve ever bought purely because I was interested in the illustrations.
I first heard about the book in a Sunday newspaper supplement in which illustrator Jim Kay described the process of creating an imaginary monster for a new children’s novel by Patrick Ness. I was so intrigued by Kay’s explanations of using ink splats, splodges and rubbings from bits of wood to produce textures and patterns, that I just had to see the results for myself.
The finished illustrations are gobsmackingly brilliant. Patrick Ness imagined his monster emerging from a yew tree as a huge, gnarled, creaking, spiky thing. In Kay’s stark black and grey drawings, you get not only a sense of the monster’s scale, but its earthy origins. Hands fashioned from twigs and bark like legs topped with a crown of thorns.
Some scenes are rendered on a single page, others spread across several pages with motifs repeated as smaller drawings elsewhere in the book.
You turn a page on which you’ve just read about the creature that comes knocking on a young boy’s bedroom window, and suddenly you see this huge shape yourself. As a young reader I think I have been petrified. But here’s the really clever part: although the illustrations are detailed, they still leave huge scope for the imagination. There’s plenty of ambiguity for the reader to interpret the scene for themselves.
I’m conscious I haven’t really talked about the narrative but don’t think that’s because I felt the text was somehow inferior to the illustrations. A Monster Calls is in fact a book where the illustrations and text are in perfect harmony. That’s an astonishing achievement considering that Patrick Ness and Jim Kay never met until after the book was completed. They communicated entirely through a third party – the art director at Walker Books, Kay told The Guardian newspaper in a 2012 interview.
A Monster Calls is a fantasy novel aimed at young teen readers. It follows 13-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives alone with his ailing mum. Dad isn’t much on the scene because he’s living in America with his a new family. Conor’s grandmother occasionally makes an appearance, but she’s not the “crinkley and smiley with white hair” kind of grandma who giggles at Christmas after a glass of sherry. That’s how grandmas are supposed to look and act, in Connor’s view but his
… wore tailored trouser suits, dyed her hair to keep out the grey, and said things that made no sense at all, like ‘Sixty is the new fifty’ or ‘Classic cars need the most expensive polish.’ What did that even mean? She emailed birthday cards, argued with waiters and still had a job.
Which leaves the boy isolated and alone, unable to express his fears about his mother who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. There’s no-one he can tell either that he is being bullied at school.
A Monster Comes Calling
For months Connor’s sleeo is disturbed by the same nightmare, “the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming”. One night at precisely 12:07, he hears a voice outside his bedroom window, calling him. Peering out he encounters a towering mass of branches and leaves in human shape, a monster who insists Connor has summoned him.
The monster continues to meet Connor to tell him stories that all touch on the complexity of human emotions and decisions. As the novel progresses, his mother’s condition worsens and Connor’s encounters with the monster unleash an aggressive reaction in the boy.
Why does the monster keep re-appearing? We don’t discover this, or the exact nature of Connor’s nightmare, until the very end of the book. Unlike many books written for children, this one doesn’t have a happy-ever- after kind of ending. Patrick Ness never shrinks from showing a child’s fear of loss and their frustration with their inability to control the future. I thought this was a sad but profound novel that treats a difficult topic of terminal illness with great sensitivity.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: Endnotes
The novel was written based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, She was terminally ill with cancer herself when she had the idea for the story but died before she could complete it. Walker Books commissioned Patrick Ness to write the book although as Ness says in an afterword to my edition, he he used the preliminary idea but gave it a completely different spin.
Patrick Ness and Jim Kay won the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for writing and illustration in 2012, making A Monster Calls the only novel to have won both children’s literary awards in 50 years.
You’ll find samples of Jim Kay’s illustrations for the book on his website. His other work, including the illustrations for the Harry Potter books, is just as impressive.