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A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, illustrations by Jim Kay, Candlewick Press, 2011.

"Oh my." This was my thought as I finished Patrick Ness and Jim Kay's remarkable book, A Monster Calls.

It is always interesting to see how a book begins, how the teller decides to begin the tale. This story begins like this:

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

Conor was awake when it came.

The story grabs the reader at the beginning and will not let go.

Conor O'Malley is thirteen years old and lives in England with his mother. His mother is being treated for cancer and is not doing well as the treatments are not working and his mother is getting weaker and having more difficulty with pain. Conor's father lives in America with his new wife and baby. Conor's maternal grandmother lives near Conor but his relationship with her is ambivalent at best. Conor is feeling quite alone and has a frequent nightmare which he finds more terrifying than the monster which shows up outside his second floor window-because it is as tall as his house! The monster takes the form of a huge ancient yew tree on a hillside behind the family home but the tree morphs into a mostly human shape of extremely large proportions to become the monster which repeatedly visits Conor. It comes to Conor contending that it has been called but it has its own agenda. The monster will tell three stories to Conor and then Conor will tell the monster his story which must include the truth. Conor is not much impressed with the threat of being told stories, but he experiences the realization in the days and weeks to come that he has seriously underestimated the power of stories. During these weeks, Conor's mother worsens and is hospitalized and Conor's school experience is haunted by different kinds of nightmares: a group of bullies who have chosen Conor for a victim and being seen as an object of sympathy by other students and school staff. The tension builds with multiple unexpected twists and turns until Conor must face the demand of telling his own true story. 

This is neither a typical story nor a typical monster, and the journey to healing is a powerful and wild thing. Complementing and enriching the narrative are the haunting and evocative black-and-white illustrations by Jim Kay. A Monster Calls is an intense, unsettling, magical and satisfying story. Highly recommended, but have some time if you begin to read as it resists being put aside until the end.

A special thanks to Jill Fitzgerald with the Grief Center in Glen Allen, Virginia who recommended this book. Much appreciated. Jill described the book like this:

It is a fantastic book that allegedly is for ages 12+ but is incredibly rich with symbolism & metaphor and is an excellent read for adults as well. It does an excellent job addressing anticipatory grief as well as ambivalence, topics that rarely get enough focus in most grief literature. Truly a stellar book.

Grandad's Ashes

Grandad's Ashes by Walter Smith, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia, 2007.

Jessica, Colin, Sasha and Tom loved their Grandad. After he died (and eighty-three people came to his funeral), Grandma said, "He had always wanted to be cremated and his last wish was to have his ashes scattered in his favourite place." The problem was deciding what his "favourite place" was and then successfully scattering Grandad's ashes. The children visit Grandma in the spring, summer, fall and winter and each visit they come upon a different location for the ashes. In the spring it's the lake, in the summer it's the park, in the fall it's a vegetable garden and in the winter it's under a now non-existent oak tree. Circumstances work against them at each place, however, and for various reasons, their efforts to spread the ashes are not successful. The following spring Grandma, remembering when Grandad did a parachute jump, takes the children and ashes on a balloon ride. High in the air, a gust of wind knocks everyone off their feet and the lid off the urn with Grandad's ashes. All watch as the ashes, like "magic powder", drift over the big lake, the park, the garden and the location where the big oak tree once stood. Afterwards, Grandma and the children go home and talk about Grandad for a long time until it is time for bed.

Author and illustrator Walter Smith has light touch both with his words and his rich, expressive and sometimes comical illustrations. Death of a grandparent and cremation are heavy subjects that sometimes defy conversation with children, so this book is a welcome contribution for creating a safe and life-affirming space for both topics. Set in the United Kingdom, there are a few terms that may not be familiar to American children such as "lorries" and "mince pies", but these can be entries into more conversations, too. A warm and comforting book.


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