Saturday, June 16, 2012

'A Monster Calls' wins Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Medals - A Review

In Great Britain there are two major awards for children's books - the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal (here). The Carnegie Medal is awarded to an outstanding book for children and young adult readers. The Kate Greenaway Medal is awarded for excellence in illustration. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) runs both awards. The winners of both 2012 medals have been announced.

In an historic announcement on June 14th both medals were awarded for one book, the first time in 75 years. Both medals have been awarded for a brilliant graphic novel 'A Monster Calls' (Walker Books) by Patrick Ness (illustrated by Jim Kay). Also worthy of note is that the young American born author also won the Carnegie medal last year for his novel 'Monsters of Men', the final book in his 'ChaosWalking' trilogy. This is only the second time this feat has been achieved.

The book, its story & my review

This is an extraordinary book, on multiple levels. The book had its genesis in the final story idea of Siobhan Dowd who died in 2007 from cancer before she could act on the idea herself. Dowd was also a Carnegie Medal winner in 2009 for 'Bog Child' (awarded posthumously). Patrick Ness was approached by Walker Books and asked to take Dowd's idea, develop and complete it. Dowd had the premise for the book, the characters and the beginning. Ness never got to meet her, but agreed with a great sense of responsibility to write the story. He set out, in his words, not 'mimicking her voice' but rather taking the 'baton' and running with it.  Jim Kay the illustrator was enthusiastic from the moment he read some of the manuscript and was asked to do some illustrations for one chapter. The author and illustrator didn't meet before the book was completed, but both seem to have approached the task as an unusual collaborative partnership, between three people, two living and one deceased. 

'A Monster Calls' is the story of 13 year-old Conor whose mother has cancer. His parents are divorced and his father is now in another country, with a new family. His mother is undergoing chemotherapy and while there seems little hope, Conor appears to be trying to escape the scary knowledge that his mother is dying. He has a recurring dream each night at 12.07pm in which someone is slipping out of his grasp into a deep chasm. And in the midst of this dreaming he is visited by a monster. The book opens with the line: 'The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.'

Each night the monster emerges by the transformation of a Yew tree outside Conor's window; a tree that has had special significance for Conor and his mother. As large and hideous as the monster is, Conor doesn't seem to be afraid of this creature that is full of threats. The monster warns him, 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.

Conor tries to deal with the reality of what is happening to his mother, his life at school is complicated by three bullies who torment him, and a girl named Lilly, who has been a lifelong friend. But Conor feels Lilly has 'betrayed' him by sharing with others that his mother is dying. His somewhat detached grandmother comes to care for him, grieving in her own way, while trying as best she can, to support Conor and his Mum. Into this already complex emotional cauldron, his father arrives from America. And Conor continues to avoid that which is unthinkable.

As Conor struggles each day in all areas of his life, there is one certainty, the monster will return. He calls again and taunts, I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O'Malley. "You look like a tree," Conor said. The monster lifted him and squeezed him and as he released him he said, Here is what will happen, Conor O'Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights...And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before...And when I have finished my three will tell me a fourth...and it will be the truth. The monster taunts him to reveal the truth he hides, the thing he is most afraid of.

The book that has resulted is a triumph for Ness and Kay. Please don't underestimate just what Kay has contributed to this work. This is no mere illustrative adornment of fine words. No, this is a veritable symphony of image and word, rich in metaphor and poetic intent. The words and images dance around one another in unison, drawing the reader into this remarkable story. It is moving and memorable. I read the book at a single sitting (something that I'd recommend with this book), in tears at several points, with tension and varied emotions rising within me. And when the book was finished, I sat quietly, holding the book against my nose as I contemplated the journey that author and illustrator had just opened up to me. This story of grief, and a boy who faces his deepest fears, is told in a way that opens the pain of loss to you as the reader, touches your own aches and fears, before bringing you back to the hope that life and the future can always bring. Wonderful! A modern classic if ever there was one.

The award ceremony

In awarding the Carnegie Medal the judging panel commented:

'A Monster Calls" is an exquisite piece of writing. It is a beautifully economical, structurally brilliant and lyrically descriptive account of a challenging episode in one child's life. One of our judges - bereaved at a young age - said she wished that she'd had "A Monster Calls" to read then, because while it describes the nature of grief with an extraordinary clarity it also fills the reader with a spirit of hopefulness and a love for life that is profound and lasting. We'd go so far as to say that this is one of the defining books of its generation'.

In accepting the Carnegie, Patrick Ness commented:

'It's extremely humbling - and a little unnerving - to win the CILIP Carnegie Medal two years in a row. I also can't tell you how happy I am that not only has the extraordinary work of Jim Kay been recognised with the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal (truly couldn't happen to a nicer guy), but that this will all help keep people reading and talking about the wonderful, wonderful Siobhan Dowd, which was the best outcome I wanted when I set out to write the book'.

In awarding the Kate Greenaway medal to Jim Kay, the Kate Greenaway judging panel commented:
Jim Kay's illustrations for 'A Monster Calls' are absolutely stunning, and so much part of the experience of reading this extraordinary book. Using only shades of black, white, and grey, Kay conjures immense symbolism, atmosphere and emotion to beautifully complement Patrick Ness' haunting text; and the quality of the whole production makes this a very special book to hold and devour. Quite simply, one of the defining books of its generation.
Jim Kay responded:

I'm chuffed to bits! I've followed the Kate Greenaway for over 20 years, and so it felt a little unreal to be on the shortlist. I still can't quite get my head around winning, it's strange even seeing the book in shops and libraries. And to read the responses of the young shadowers has been amazing. I can't thank CILIP enough!

Age Range: Suitable for readers 12+

Price in Australia: $16.95 RRP

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