A Monster Calls: Carnegie winner Patrick Ness deals with the subject of death
A book about dying, death, bereavement and coming to terms with loss has won the 2012 Carnegie Medal.
Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls was pronounced the winner of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals’s (CILIP) prize for a children’s book at an event at the Barbican hosted by broadcaster and journalist Kate Silverton earlier today.
For the first time in the 75 year history of the Carnegie Medal the book, which is already a Galaxy National Awards Winner, has won two awards in tandem. The Kate Greenaway Prize for an illustrated children’s book is also run by CILIP with the winner announced at the same time as the Carnegie Medal. A Monster Calls, illustrated by Jim Kay, has won both prizes.
Ness, who also won last year’s Carnegie Medal with Monsters of Men, the third part in his Chaos Walking trilogy, has created something rather different this time. A Monster Calls is shorter and arguably inclusive of a younger readership. It is based on an idea left by the late Siobhan Dowd, herself a Carnegie Medal winner, posthumously for Bog Child in 2009.
The result is an extraordinary book which is destined, I suspect, for a long life as a children’s classic because it has so much to say about something which every child has to face at some level: death.
Conor’s mother has cancer and she isn’t getting any better. Each course of chemotherapy has less beneficial effect than the last. Conor, who is also being bullied at school and has fallen out with his best friend, willingly looks after himself and her, but he is besieged by nightmares – or are they supernatural experiences? A huge tree near the house turns into a monster and comes each night at first to terrorise and later to talk, advise and tell stories. The metaphor is fairly obvious to an adult reader who can see that Conor is haunted by his worst fears while denying that his mother is dying. His father, who has a demanding new family in America, visits briefly and Conor struggles to deal with his maternal grandmother who is, he eventually realises, as distressed as he is to see her only child slipping away. But both Conor and his grandma must eventually let go.
I read A Monster Calls nearly a month ago and it’s been sitting on my desk awaiting (demanding?) attention ever since. Even now as I riffle through it to remind myself as I type this piece I can feel the power and dignity of it all over again. And the Carnegie/Greenaway judges are right. You really can’t separate the text from the illustrations.
So is death and facing it really a suitable subject for a children’s book? Yes, of course it is. Every child encounters death. For the lucky ones if may be only a distant great aunt hardly known to the child. For the unlucky it will be someone close and part of his or her everyday life.
I taught in secondary schools for decades and, inevitably because difficult as it is, it is part of life, there were tragic deaths in each of them. Every school I worked in had, at some point to deal with pupil death through cancer, other disease or accident. There was also at least one death of a teaching colleague in each school. Such things are hard enough for staff, with a bit of experience of life, to cope with. For children they are deeply distressing and terrifying losses which they need plenty of help to come to terms with and stories, such as A Monster Calls are one way of doing that.
Death of a parent is probably the greatest fear for all children. And there won’t be many children who don’t know another child to whom it has happened. So it’s a very real fear, but like all terrors it’s easier to cope with if it is faced head on as Conor gradually learns to do in the book, first with the ‘monster’ and, eventually, with his mother’s death.
Not, of course, that this book should be read only by bereaved children. But it offers such profound insights into the whole psychology of watching a loved one die over months or years that it has the potential to change the way readers think about death and dying, whether or not they have personally been touched by it.
Thank you Patrick Ness and Jim Kay. And congratulations on your well deserved wins. I think your book is going to make a big difference for many people.Tagged in: A Monster Calls, Bog Child, books, carnegie medal, Carnegie winner, children, education, literacy, Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd
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