I’ve mentioned frequently that I’m having a hard time finding a middle grade novel to get solidly behind, a book that is clearly among the most distinguished of the year–and one that I am also crazy passionate about. I’ve had no problem finding those kind of books in other genres: picture book (THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE), easy reader (I BROKE MY TRUNK!), chapter book (SIR GAWAIN), nonfiction (AMELIA LOST), and young adult (DAUGHER OF SMOKE & BONE). But I haven’t found that kind of book among the middle grade fiction–at least not on the first read. So I’m auditioning middle grade novels for my top three and A MONSTER CALLS is my first callback.
You’ll remember that the first time I posted on this title, I got us completely sidetracked on eligibility issues. Since we included A MONSTER CALLS on the shortlist, we are obviously hoping for the best. The next time we discussed it, we got sidetracked on audience issues, and I wanted to address some of those points before we move on to the literary elements.
The word bibliotherapy was tossed around quite a bit. Bibliotherapy is not a genre of children’s literature, but rather a genre of therapy, and authors obviously have no control over how their books may be used in various settings. OKAY FOR NOW, for example, could also be used as bibliotherapy, for a child with an emotionally abusive parent–or an older sibling coming home from war with a severe disability. The word was used as an argument ad hominem, that by labeling a book as something–fluff, sequel, young adult, didactic, cute–we can easily dimiss it by virtue of the label itself rather than because of the actual criteria.
A Newbery book must display respect for children’s understandings, appeciations, and abilities, but it does not need to be a popular book. At the Newbery table, there may be a very brief discussion about the audience and how it responds to the book–members often solicit child responses to contenders–but the primary focus will be on the other criteria. In my opinion, if your strongest concerns about a book are not rooted in the literary elements then you’re probably looking at a very serious contender.
the physical landscape of the novel is nicely done, but nothing special. However, it’s the mood and atmosphere of the piece that really distinguish this particular setting from other books with strong settings. Yes, the illustrations heighten the sense of dread and foreboding and menace, but it’s grounded in the text.
PLOT AND THEME
To my mind, these elements are inextricably linked. Whether Conor is dealing with his home life or processing his internal life with the monster, the plot is about death, denial, and grief; the subplot–what happens at school–is about bullying. Because the story has been pared down to its essence, everything revolves around these themes. That tight focus is a strength of the piece, but it’s also pretty claustrophobic, leaving little respite from the heavy themes. Death and bullying! The classic, time-honored depressing theme paired with the trendy, modern one.
Ness writes with an effortless mix of dialogue and description, and his clipped sentences create a hypnotic cadence that is further enhanced by his use of italics, parentheses, and em dashes. The sentence level writing places this book in the top tier, but there are also big picture literary devices at work, too, such as imagery, symbolism, folkloric elements, and the stories within the story.
Conor’s inner life–his hopes and fears–and their outward manifestation in his relationships at home and at school are rendered with great clarity and force. I find the scenes between mother and son at the end are especially moving and affecting. But because of the narrow focus of the novel, I also find it a one-dimensional characterization, too. Conor is only defined by his mother’s terminal illness and the bullies at school. We know next to nothing about his hobbies, interests, abilities, or anything else about him, really. So it’s a bit of an odd characterization: very raw and real in some aspects, but also kind of flat and unfinished in others. I also don’t find Conor particularly likeable which is only a problem when coupled with that odd characterization because the result is that I feel cool, distant, and oftentimes emotionally uninvested.
So I think I feel about A MONSTER CALLS the way that Nina feels about PENDERWICKS. My personal taste probably inhibits me from appreciating this title as fully as some others do. I definitely see distinguished qualities all over the place, but I also have the minor concerns I mentioned here and there. It’s definitely at the front of the pack, but I don’t see the separation yet that I want to see.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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