Young adult literature is my guilty pleasure. (OK, one of them. I’m a sucker for the Real Housewives of Wherever You Are.) When I worked in a bookstore, I got the same questions as when I was an English teacher: What do you recommend for a young person who is a good reader? When that girl was me, I was “forced” to read the classics, Little Women, or adult fiction, like the Clive Cussler series. The good news is the stories we love in the movies originated from young adult books. The bad news is the content is not something that is emotionally or psychologically friendly for tweens and teens to read alone. I’m here to help.
From Cover to Cover
Our fears are ignited with the first sentence of the book, “The monster showed up just after midnight” (1). In a little more than 200 pages, Conor found out how to stop the monster and free himself, “And by doing so, he could finally let her go” (205).
On the surface, a monster born from a yew tree, taunts Conor during the nights after the cancer killing his mother tortures him all day. Conor isn’t as afraid of the monster as much as he is the nightmare that wakes him nightly. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness teaches parents what Conor learned in school: “Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell” (23). Conor’s true fear is one we all share, regardless of age: having the courage to speak YOUR truth aloud without shame.
- Who? Conor is dealing with getting beat up by bullies in middle school while his mother is getting beat up, again, by cancer. He gets help getting back and forth to school from his grandmother and less-than-helpful advice from his estranged father.
The monster is the character who provides the best guidance for navigating the anger, fear, and powerlessness that Conor faces as the cancer steals his mother.
- What? Jewish folklore explains the reason Jewish people tell so many stories (guilty) is because nobody knew the true name of G-d, so their stories were prayers that granted miracles. The monster explains he will disappear after three stories are told: the monster will narrate the first two stories, and Conor must tell the third story, his nightmare, to the monster. Conor learns some lessons about the human condition to help his relationship with his grandmother and father. Rather than his grandmother being good or evil, we all learn with Conor that the world is gray. Our judgement of others as good or evil reflect our morals. The monster’s second story follows the lesson of “The Hangman,” doing the right thing when you are not personally affected.
- When? Traditionally, developmental psychologists only address common markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. But, since late in the first decade of the new millennium, we are starting to understand that the life span has markers in adulthood, too. By the time we meet Conor and his mom, we are beyond learning about life before and after cancer. The line is drawn between before and after the “little talk”. BEFORE Conor was being bullied and stopped being friends with Lily, he didn’t need to think about processing his mother telling him she may not survive the latest experimental treatments. AFTER their “little talk”, Conor had no privacy because everyone knew he was going to lose his mother.
- Where? A Monster Calls lives where children do, at home and in school. It doesn’t take long for the monster to wreak violence in both settings. He destroys parts of Conor’s grandmother’s house. He beats up Harry, the school bully, who has been punching and kicking Conor for weeks. The more Conor tries to be invisible, to live nowhere, the more the monster causes destruction everywhere.
- Why? There is a purity in children because they do not understand nuance. Asking “why” isn’t annoying repetition. It’s taking a firm stance in what you know to be the truth. Some parents use a child’s insistence of understanding to reminisce ye olden days where children were seen and not heard. Conor’s nightmare, the story he tells the monster, the story he needs to tell in order to accept his mother’s death, is the perfect example of the damage of silencing children. Conor tries to get control of his heart and home to help his ailing mother which summons the monster. Conor tries to be perfect, tries to be invisible, which causes the monster to destroy places and people. Conor acts out to earn punishments worthy of the guilt he feels in his nightmare. But, being visible is not the solution to being invisible; for Conor, the nightmares became more frequent. Telling the monster his nightmare, sharing HIS truth aloud, chased the monster away.
Patrick Ness finished this novel for another author, Siobhan Dowd, who died before she could decide where her characters would go. Ironically, the poetry of a story about disappearing due to death reminds us to make sure our children don’t feel invisible. We need to indulge in their passionate arguments about why a purple sky makes sense in their 6 year old drawings and why they are certain they are in love in their 16 year old relationships. Our insistence on teaching them “the truth”, will create monsters that will stop them from sharing their truth.