Picture this: your best friend tells you there's a great book you have to read. You ask what it's about, and your friend says, "Well, actually, the book never really says what it's about, but trust me, you have to read it."
Sure, you might think your friend's a little nuts, but we're betting your curiosity's piqued. And that's exactly what draws us to A Monster Calls: Conor's mom has cancer, but nobody ever says the C-word. So get out your powers of inference, Shmoopers, because you're going to have to do some reading between the lines here.
There's an old joke that people always whisper "cancer" instead of saying it in full voice. As if it's so awful that if you say aloud that someone has it, you'll curse him to die. But in A Monster Calls, nobody can even bring themselves to whisper the word, least of all Conor. He won't say "chemo" either, even though his mom's obviously gone through several unsuccessful rounds. When the book opens, she's weak and sick from the latest, but she refers to it only as "treatment" when she's around her son. There's a whole lot of denial going on up in here.
Which is fair. Cancer is a traumatic, horrific, terrifying thing. And denial's always the easiest way to cope. Siobhan Dowd, the author who originally conceived this novel would know: she herself died of breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 47. Dowd had already contracted with an agent to write A Monster Calls, and the agent was in love with the idea. So after Dowd's death, the agent approached Patrick Ness, the author of the popular Chaos Walking series, and asked him to take over writing the book. She gave him complete freedom to tell the story however he wanted, and the story he told ended up winning the Carnegie Medal (the across-the-pond equivalent of the Newbery) for it in 2012.
So wait, you may be thinking. I get it about the cancer, but what's up with the monster? Well, there's a yew tree in the cemetery behind Conor's house, and at night it comes to life, grows about twelve feet, comes to Conor's window and calls his name. Just in case that's not terrifying enough for you, artist Jim Kay has illustrated the story with big, menacing strokes of black ink that will send shivers down your spine. The critics went nuts for the combination of the story and the art—a combo that cleverly traces Conor's journey to confront his feelings about his mother's illness. This book got heaps of praise from all sides, and was even called "a singular masterpiece" in one review. Not to jump on any bandwagons, but we agree. You'll want to share it not only with your graphic-novel- and horror-loving friends, but with everyone you never want to lose.
Because you like to cry a lot. No, but seriously, if you've ever lost someone you loved—especially to cancer—you'll feel A Monster Calls with every fiber of your being. It's that good.
Okay, so you may not have watched your mom die of cancer, but there are all kinds of loss that break our hearts. Maybe you've lost a pet or a grandparent or gone through a horrible breakup. It's part of the human experience, and it happens to all of us at some point. Eventually, someone who was a crucial part of your life won't be there anymore, and you'll have to figure out how to deal. It's the biggest of bummers (but don't worry, we promise that A Monster Calls will make you laugh, too).
Most of us want to plug our ears and go la la la when we think about death (unless we're Goth, in which case we're already hanging out in cemeteries). Nobody wants to face the fact that someone they love is dying, and certainly we all live much of our lives in denial of our own expiration dates. But there's a big difference between an abstract concept of death and the certainty that it's coming—and soon.
So let's say it's many, many years from now, and someone you love is dying of cancer or another horrible disease, and you're not sure how to show you care. Hopefully you'll remember A Monster Calls, and you'll be able to pass it on to that person's family members—especially children. After all, we all have monsters. But, just like Conor, we have the power to stare them down, face our fears, and tell them to bring it on.