Conor O’Malley, all of 13, is having nightmares. The yew tree at the back of their house becomes a monster. And the monster comes looking for him.
Conor lives with his divorced mom; his father has remarried and moved to America. Conor is increasingly taking care of himself; he makes his own meals, gets himself ready for school, and cleans up around the house, maintaining as best he can a degree of family normality. It doesn’t take long to understand why: Conor’s mother has cancer.
At school, Conor had always been an overachiever, first to raise his hand in class to answer a question, always do well in his subjects. But his schoolmates and teachers learned about his mother, and they began to treat Conor with kid gloves. The more they do, the more he withdraws. Only the bullies pay attention to him now, except when the monster shows up.
The monster wants to tell Conor three stories. And he wants Conor to tell him a fourth story. The sicker his mother becomes, the more frequently the monster is showing up.
There is also the specter of his grandmother, who tightly manages her own world as much as Conor is trying to manage his. The two do not get along well.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is based on an idea by the late children’s and young adult writer Siobhan Dowd (1960-2007), who died from a severe case of breast cancer. Ness, himself a children’s and young adult author, wrote the story in honor of Dowd. The book was written into a screenplay for the movie of the same name, released in 2016, and was also a play produced at the Old Vic Theatre in London this summer.
The movie starred Felicity Jones (Conor’s mother), Sigourney Weaver (the grandmother), Lewis MacDougal (Conor), and Liam Neeson as the voice of the monster. It received high critical ratings but did poorly at the box office in the U.S.
Ness is the author of several works of fiction for both young adults and adults, including The Crane Wife, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men, and The Crash of Hennington. Born in Virginia, he received a degree in English Literature from the University of Southern California. He lives in London.
A Monster Calls is a moving, gripping story of a young buy trying to deny, deal with, and understand the collapse of the only world he knows.
Top photograph: A scene from A Monster Calls at the Old Vic Theatre.