Title: A Monster Calls
Author: Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd
Illustrator: Jim Kay
Narrator: Jason Isaacs
ISBN: 9780763655594
Pages: 205 pages
CD/Discs: 4 CDs, 4 hours 1 minute plus a bonus disc of illustrations from the book.
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2011.

I have come to get you, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, pushing against the house, shaking the pictures off Conor’s wall, sending books and electronic gadgets and an old stuffed toy rhino tumbling to the floor. […]
“So come and get me then,” he said. […]
The monster paused for a moment, and then with a roar it pounded two fists against the house. Conor’s ceiling buckled under the blows, and huge cracks appeared in the walls. Wind filled the room, the air thundering with the monster’s angry bellows.
“Shout all you want,” Conor shrugged, barely raising his voice. “I’ve seen worse.” […]
You really aren’t afraid, are you?
“No,” Conor said. “Not of you, anyway.”
The monster narrowed its eyes.
You will be, it said. Before the end.
And the last thing Conor remembered was the monster’s mouth roaring open to eat him alive. (8-9)

Conor O’Malley has been struggling with a nightmare ever since his mother started cancer treatments. So when a real and ancient monster appears demanding the truth from Conor, Conor is still more terrified of the monsters in his dreams. Telling this monster his darkest fears isn’t high on his priority list, especially since everyone except the bully is avoiding him at school, his father has finally escaped his new family in America to visit, and Conor has been forced to live with his grandmother while his mom is in the hospital again. But maybe Conor is right. Maybe the monster outside his room isn’t the thing he’s supposed to fear the most.

There are those books that come into your life at a time when you need them the most, and because of that fact they affect you more than they normally would. This is one of those books. A week after finishing the audiobook, my grandmother passed away after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Just like Conor is watching his mother struggle, I’d been trying to come to grips with my grandmother’s own struggle, and this book in a strange way brought me comfort at the thought that she knew how much we all cared about her.

Jason Isaacs is someone who could give Jim Dale a run for his money. In the interview following the audiobook version, Isaacs reveals that Ness asked him to be unsentimental, with Ness stressing that there is a difference behind sentiment and emotion and he wanted the emotion to work without added sentiment. (You can hear the interview and a portion of the audiobook here.) Isaacs didn’t have to add emotion. He lets the text speak for itself and instead focuses on the inflection and tone and the power of the words that he’s given. It’s an amazing experience to listen to this man bring Conor’s story to life. The gravely monster roars and expresses outrage, and Conor’s every emotion is palatable, from disdain towards the monster’s stories to rage against the bully and fear of the nightmare disturbing his sleep. It’s the fear that Isaacs conveys the best in my opinion, through cracking voice and tenuous gasps of breath which stay with you even after the last disc has come to an end.

The artwork is equally impressive, with Jim Kay providing striking black, gray and white illustrations to accompany the text. They look to be made with those black etching boards that they hand out in middle school art classes, where students scratch off the black to reveal the white underneath. It’s appropriately dark and stark and the noticeably hashes present throughout the drawings lends a stormy, almost ghostly quality. Some of the drawings are so minimalist that you wonder how he could leave them that way, when compared to the imposing double page spreads. But then you realize that the drawings in the margins bracket those double page spreads, leaving the impression that they (and the accompanying subject matter, which is Conor’s nightmare and the monster) were just too big for two pages and had to bleed over to the accompanying areas.

The irony of the plot of the story is not lost on me. The novel was written by Patrick Ness because Siobhan Dowd succumbed to an early death from cancer and could not finish the work herself. Connor’s mother is also fighting a loosing battle with cancer. Maybe meant as a parting gift to those she left behind, Ness and Dowd are well paired, even though Ness says in the author’s note that they never met each other. I don’t envy his task of bringing someone else’s world to life, but I think Dowd would be pleased.

Although it didn’t win the Printz or Odyssey award, I think it must have been a strong contender for both and deserves a place in all libraries. I’ll definitely be adding both Dowd’s and Ness’s other works to my to-be-read list.