Every June, the UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals awards the Carnegie Medal to the best British book for children and young adults for the past year. This medal is the equivalent of the Newbery Medal in the USA. Its sister medal, the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustrations, corresponds to our Caldecott award. This year, the 75th anniversary of the Carnegie Medal, one special book won both the Carnegie and Greenaway medals, which is unprecedented in the history of the awards.
When I saw that A Monster Calls was a merger of two enormous talents, I had to put everything else aside to read it. Siobhan Dowd, the first author to posthumously be awarded the Carnegie Medal in 2009 for Bog Child, and Patrick Ness, winner of last year's Carnegie Medal for Monsters of Men, are an explosive combination. Dowd died at age 47 of cancer after having written just four absolute gems for young adults but she left notes for an unfinished fifth book. Ness, who says he never met Dowd, was approached to write her last book. He says he took her ideas, but added his own thoughts and wrote in his own voice.
He commands the reader to make the necessary circle of input and to take the story and run with it, to "make trouble." And how could a reader not do so? Ness draws you in from the start. The pitch-perfect illustrations only add to the mood of the story. Incredibly, this was just the illustrator’s second book commission.
Conor is the thirteen year old protagonist of the story. His mother has cancer. Conor and his Mum are on their own since his father remarried and moved to America. His maternal grandmother lives nearby but she is a career woman and a source of friction, not comfort, to Conor. Although he hasn't consciously admitted it to himself, his mother is dying. Conor has a recurring nightmare that is his subconscious mind's admission of that fact. He is bullied at school, and even those who don't bully him have left him alone once they have heard of his sorrow. He is just very, very alone.
Into the void comes another monster. It is not the monster of his nightmares, but is a yew tree, growing in a churchyard, which he and his mother have watched from their window. The yew monster comes to him at 12:07, just after midnight. Here, Ness pulls in the Green Man themes of British/Celtic folklore. The yew, which can live over a thousand years, is symbolic of life and death and reincarnation. Many churchyards in Britain have yews that predate the Christian church and are indicative of ancient sacred sites. The yew is also the Green Man, who is viewed as both monster and mentor in ancient pagan religions.
The yew monster tells him three stories and these stories do not at all turn out as Conor expects. By the time the monster reaches the fourth story, a story he commands Conor to tell him, the reader has traversed the sorrow of life, the sorrow inherent in the knowledge that this is (in the words of my father), "not a permanent arrangement." The judges for the prestigious Carnegie Medal said, "We'd go so far as to say that this is one of the defining books of its generation.” Read it for yourself and see why.