With John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, I understood why people were heaping their praises on it. It was yet another cancer story, but it sidestepped predictability. A Monster Calls, on the other hand, does not. Minus the touching lesson it teaches at the very end, everything progresses just about as you, or at least I, would expect them to. I understand it, like The Fault in Our Stars, is a very personal work. Siobhan Dowd died of her own terminal illness before she could write the story herself, and Patrick Ness was allowed to write it in her place. I can’t help but respect the effort to finish the project Dowd, unfortunately, could not.
None of this means that it’s beyond criticism. If you read the reviews, though, you might be led to believe that it is. I know I feel like the first person who isn’t speaking glowingly of the book. Why wasn’t I as wowed by this story as everyone else? First of all, the writing itself. Children are its target audience, so a certain amount of simplicity is to be expected; but I’ve read a lot of children’s literature as of late and you’d be surprised at how profound and, for lack of a better word, adult it can be. A Monster Calls, by comparison, is lacking in personality. Nothing about the writing sets it apart, in my opinion. It feels like a very straight retelling of events as opposed to a work of fiction.
Second of all, the predictability. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, I knew right away what the boy having to tell the monster a story would end up meaning for him. I even had an inkling of what the monster was to the boy. How he came into being. I knew what was sure to come, and so it had no effect upon me when it finally did. Everything was just too predictable. No, inevitable is a better word to describe it.
Maybe if cancer were part of my life in one way or another, as it is for most, that wouldn’t have mattered because it would’ve been as personal for me as it was for Dowd (and, one assumes, Ness as well). But I’m lucky in that it’s not. Not yet, at least. As a result, while cancer remains tragic, I’m incapable of forming the emotional investment necessary for Ness’s story to land its gut punch on me like it has on so many others.
All I was able to connect with were the astounding illustrations and the story’s message, whether that be the main one that wraps up the story, or the little ones along the way. I can see how this could be a very important book for children to read because of what they should learn from it. And I respect it for that as much as I do how it was conceived. But I’m rating and reviewing this based upon my own personal engagement. So when I stuck with it only to see more pretty pictures, I can’t speak too highly of it, now can I? I won’t try to deny others the pleasure of reading this book, since I’m clearly in the minority, and my criticisms are even more subjective than usual, yet I also won’t try to reinforce the effusive praise A Monster Calls has received. Read it, or don’t. Like it or not. Just don’t fault me for disagreeing with the general consensus.
Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.