Middle Grade Mondays: a Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A MONSTER CALLS was written from an original idea by author Siobhan Dowd who started the story and died of cancer before she could write it. An editor at Walker Books contacted Ness to write the book after she died. That right there should tell you something about the nature of this book.

from GoodReads:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth

I don’t know if one could get through this book without having some sort of emotional response, especially if the reader has ever lost a loved one. This book triggers all those feelings one has as the loved one slips away. That helplessness, that anger.

I don’t know that this book is for every child. The language is that of a middle grade novel, but it deals with complex, real life, issues. It is a serious story about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer (this is not a spoiler). There are no harps and roses. The real monsters in this book, are the kind we will eventually have to deal with in real life.

This is not to say that I think kids shouldn’t read about serious issues (see Wonder and Mockingbird). I’m just saying take into consideration the sensitivity and maturity of the child (especially if he or she has recently lost a loved one). Then again, kids can surprise us by how much they can handle.

Yes, there is a monster in this book (a yew tree that turns into a giant), but Connor is not frightened by this monster, he’s frightened of the monster within him. The story is really about how our feelings of guilt and anger can eat us up, how we are our own worst enemies sometimes, and how we need to forgive ourselves.

The main character has anger issues, and rightly so, but in the story he does a few things so heinous, that I found myself wishing them undone. There is nothing offensive or graphic in the story, but it still may disturb some children. On the other hand, it could be used as a great healing tool for both children and adults.

I’ve seen some label this as fantasy and some label it as horror. I don’t think either label quite does the job. When the monster calls, he tells Conor three stories that come across as fairy tales, but they each have twisted and complex endings that don’t make sense in the world of right and wrong that children live in. That’s something they will eventually learn; that in life, sometimes there are no clean answers.

The artwork, by Jim Kay, is dark and disturbing, and complements the tone of the book.

Click for Jim Kay’s A Monster Calls artwork

NOTE: I realized later that I didn’t state whether I enjoyed the book or not! I thought it was engaging, thought-provoking, and well-conceived..

For more Middle Grade Mondays, visit Shannon Messenger’s blog.


  1. Joanne Fritz
    Oct 15, 2012

    At the bookstore, we shelved this in YA, but only because it was pretty disturbing (I found it a little hard to deal with myself). I’m sure an older MG reader could get something out of it, though. Siobhan Dowd was a wonderful writer and we lost her too soon.

  2. Danika Dinsmore
    Oct 15, 2012

    I was a little surprised it was being marketed as an MG book, although the writing itself seems age-appropriate. And, again, not because I don’t think kids that age can handle serious subjects, just the complexity of what Conor is dealing with is quite mature.

  3. Jennifer D. Munro
    Oct 15, 2012

    I had Sam read this book, and I read it, too. I loved it. I thought maybe I’d heard about it from your blog, but I guess not. Yes, it was dark, but I think not nearly so disturbing as what comes across our kids’ radar with video games and movies, so I thought maybe it was good for Sam to “go there” but with a book that is rich and contemplative. Would you review Siobhan’s other books in future? I would like that.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Oct 15, 2012

      You may have heard about it on my blog because I listed it on my Summer Reading List a few months ago. (yes, I”m just finishing up my summer reading) I get what you’re saying about the darkness and horror of other things kids come across (the final Harry Potter book among them). This one, to me at least, was more frightening in that it’s so real. Those feelings we have are gut-wrenching. And what we are capable of doing as humans is terrifying. I actually haven’t read any of Siobhan’s books, but this book definitely made me want to.

  4. Thank you for the back story on the story. It does sound like a book that packs an emotional punch. I will probably give it a try so that I will know if I should recommend it to any of my 5th grade students. The cover certainly looks a little scary! Thanks for the wonderful, honest review!

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Oct 15, 2012

      Hi Stephanie, Yes, I think you should read it first. Like I said, there’s nothing offensive or graphic about it. It’s not that kind of “horror” story. I think it’s a great book and I’m sure there will be plenty of 5th graders who will be engaged by it.

  5. Yes, a very scary cover. I don’t think my 9-year-old would be ready for it. Perhaps a mature middle schooler?

    Danika, thanks for commenting on my blog. I’ve looked for an e-mail with which to reply to you, but can’t find one. So, let it be said that I am always grateful for you raking the time to visit Middle Grade Mafioso, and for leaving astute comments.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Oct 15, 2012

      Yes, a mature middle grader. You could ask my friend Jennifer Munro (above). I believe her son is 10.

      And you’re welcome! I only wish I could get to everyone’s blog every week. You brought up a good point, though, there’s no way to contact me from this site! I never noticed that before. I will remedy that.

    • Jennifer D. Munro
      Oct 16, 2012

      And thanks to Danika for directing me to Michael’s blog, too! I do a library order for Sam whenever you do a post! It has been a blessing for me.

  6. Pamela Thomson Torres
    Oct 15, 2012

    This sounds really intriguing. I think middle grade is when kids start realizing that everything doesn’t fit in neat little boxes. These are the types of books that are good to read together and talk about. Thanks for the review and the back story.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Oct 15, 2012

      I agree, I think this is the perfect book to read together. It invites discussion.

  7. Akoss
    Oct 16, 2012

    The art is dark indeed. If I didn’t know it was MG I would’ve expected YA or Adult fiction between the covers.

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