67 pages 2 hours read

Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

A Monster Calls (2011) was written by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, and the original idea for the novel is credited to the late Siobhan Dowd. Ness wrote the novel in Dowd’s memory after she passed away in 2007 from breast cancer. Set in present-day England, A Monster Calls is a young adult fantasy novel that explores topics of terminal illness, grief, death, anger, and the grieving process through the eyes of a child; it does so by using elements from English history and mythology. A Monster Calls won the Carnegie Medal, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious award for children’s literature, and the Greenway Medal for illustration in 2012; it was the first book ever to win both awards. A Monster Calls was adapted into a 2016 movie featuring Liam Neeson as the Monster and was adapted for the stage in 2019. Ness is also the author of several novels for both adults and young readers, including the award-winning Chaos Walking series. This guide references the Candlewick Press paperback edition of A Monster Calls.

Plot Summary

In present-day England, Conor O’Malley wakes up from his usual nightmare to hear someone calling his name. To his amazement, the yew tree across from his house transforms into a humanoid monster and eats him alive. The next morning, Conor finds no evidence of the monster’s visit except for a layer of yew tree leaves on the floor of his bedroom.

Conor’s mother is sick and undergoing treatments for an unnamed illness, and Conor keeps the household running when his mum is too tired. At school, Conor is isolated from the other students, who know about his mother’s illness. He is bullied by a boy named Harry, and his only friend is Lily, whom he is not speaking to because she told the whole school about his mum’s illness.

Conor has strained relationships with the other adults in his life. His parents are divorced and his dad lives in America, and Conor does not get along with his fussy grandmother. Except for his mother, Conor feels very alone, and he has a dark secret that he won’t tell even her: the truth of what happens in his nightmare every night.

The monster visits Conor regularly and says it will tell him three stories. After, Conor must tell the monster a fourth story—the truth of what happens in his nightmare. Despite Conor’s protestations, the monster begins to tell his tales.

In the first tale, the monster talks about an ancient kingdom, a wicked queen, and a prince who loved a farmer’s daughter. To Conor’s shock and indignation, the story has an unexpected twist: the prince was the villain, and the wicked queen wasn’t wicked after all.

In the next tale, the monster tells a story of two men, a Parson and an Apothecary. Although the monster leads Conor to believe that the Parson was the good man and the Apothecary was evil, once again, the monster’s story has a twist. The monster invites Conor to help him destroy the evil Parson’s house, and when Conor looks around, he discovers that he has actually destroyed his grandmother’s sitting room.

Between the stories, Conor’s life changes rapidly. His mother becomes so sick that she must be admitted to the hospital for additional treatments, and Conor must go stay with his grandmother. Conor wants to go stay with his dad in America, but his father won’t allow it. Conor feels powerless, frightened, and angry that everyone around him seems to be anticipating his mother’s death and giving up on her.

At school, Conor attacks the bully Harry while the monster tells the third tale about a man who, like Conor, felt invisible and decided to make people see him. Conor learns that his mother is not responding to any more treatments and is in her final stages of dying. He goes to see the monster, who forces him to tell his nightmare: Conor dreams of letting his mother go and surrendering her to the disease. He is wracked with guilt, but the monster comforts him and explains that there is nothing wrong with wishing for an end to pain.

Conor makes it back to the hospital in time to hold his mother’s hand as she passes away. He can finally admit that he wants her suffering to stop, but he also loves her and is heartbroken to see her go. In the end, he holds on to his mother and lets her go at the same time.

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