When novelist Siobhan Dowd died in 2007, she left four finished books and an idea for a fifth. Rather than let a good idea go to waste, Walker Books commissioned Patrick Ness to write it. Ness, like Dowd, is a brilliant and acclaimed creator of books for older children and young adults, but the two novelists' voices, their concerns, their styles, are quite different. Many people – myself included – thought this a peculiar piece of casting.
Well, shows how much I know. A Monster Calls takes Dowd's preliminary idea, and draws out of that bud a tale that has nothing of the hybrid about it. Quite the contrary: the story, the writing and Jim Kay's pictures are a single stunning entity, organic and vital.
Conor's mother is ill in hospital. His father lives in America, so Conor is left in the care of his brisk grandmother. Conor is having nightmares – one in particular, shudderingly awful, that recurs. And then comes the visit. His visitor is a monstrous creature that walks at night, tells three tales, and demands the most difficult thing of all in exchange. It demands that Conor face up to his feelings; that he tell the Truth.
Conor's monster is a yew tree, a huge, gnarled, creaking, elemental thing, as old as the Earth. It's kin to the traditional "green man", and the book does have some roots in ancient folklore. But for me it also had echoes of another giant visitor, the Iron Man of Ted Hughes's book. A Monster Calls has the same scale – the monstrous, noble grandeur of the creature invading Conor's little life, urgent and detailed. But there's real fear, too, and real anger. Kay's illustrations, dark and terrible, follow the author's lead in refusing to flinch from portraying that fear and anger with ferocious power.
Received wisdom dictates that books published for children need endings that are, if not exactly happy, then at least hopeful. A happy ending would have been a betrayal of the kind of bracingly honest book this is, but hope can be hard to come by in such a story. Here the desperate honesty and refusal to compromise do allow for a sort of brutal clarity to emerge, and from that finally a glimpse of something like hope. Brave and beautiful, full of compassion, A Monster Calls fuses the painful and insightful, the simple and profound. The result trembles with life.