A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness Four years later, I finally read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (but before the movie is released next year). If I had known the book is illustrated with incredibly dark depths by Jim Kay, I might have read this stunning convergence of word and image sooner. Siobhan Dowd died in 2007 and A Monster Calls would have been her fifth book. She had the premise and characters, but not enough time. I read and loved her amazing Bog Child in 2008. Patrick Ness’s development of her ideas into the finished A Monster Calls is a heart-wrenching memorial to Siobhan Dowd.

When a monster calls on Conor in the middle of the night, it can only mean one thing, but the monster isn’t what Conor expects. He’s not even scared of this Yew Tree monster, because it’s not the monster from his recurring nightmare: darkness, screams and pure terror. There are more important worries in Conor’s life. His mum has cancer and her treatment isn’t working like it should, bullies at school torment him every day, and his best friend did something unforgivable.

The Yew Tree monster returns to tell three stories. Conor wonders why, when they make no sense. Stories don’t scare Conor, he has no time for them in life writing class and his real life problems are mounting.

When his mother is hospitalized, Conor knows she’ll get better because her newest treatment is made from Yew leaves. Conor doesn’t need to stay with his Grandma or for his father to visit from America. Agatha Christie taught me the Yew is a tree of death, planted in graveyards, with poisonous berries. Patrick Ness taught me the Yew is a tree of healing and Conor asks the monster to heal his mother.

As the bullying at school gets worse, Conor’s rage melds with the Yew Tree’s stories. The destruction of his Grandma’s sitting room coincides with the second tale but to Conor’s horror, is all too real. The punishment he expects never comes, as he nears the final confrontation with the real monster from his nightmare and the awful truth of why the Yew Tree came walking.

Conor‘s confusion and grief are palpable through Jim Kay’s disturbingly dark illustrations that weave through the book. The Yew Tree is monstrous as he leans in Conor’s window, undergrowth trailing from his mouth like tangled blood. As he tells his tales, he becomes less of a monster and more human, standing beside Conor on p.111 his face is stark, a man with disheveled hair. On p.148-9 when Conor asks the Yew Tree to heal his mother, a Yew Tree man sits with his head in his hands, almost defeated, in this poignant and hauntingly beautiful spread.

Ben Norland designed the book and his intermingling of word and image is breathtaking – double page spreads, a raven flying past words from the graveyard, and varied word wrapping as the pictures collide with the story. The smudged fingerprints, reminiscent of blood, surrounding the third tale are an ominous foreshadowing of the chaos wrought in the school dining hall. When Conor’s anger marches in step with the monster’s tales, the Yew Tree’s crazed staring eyes survey the damage.

Conor doesn’t want to let go of his mother.

“The moment she would slip from his grasp, no matter how tightly he held on.”

When a person dies, we don’t have to let go. Even as they slip from our grasp, we can hold on. Grief is not letting go of the love and memories, in spite of losing the person they were.

Conor’s mother left too soon, as did Siobhan Dowd. Patrick Ness wrote an astounding tribute to her memory and the monstrous grief and guilt that enfolds those left behind after any death, particularly the drawn-out agony of a terminal illness.

Now that I’ve depressed myself thinking about grief, I need to go back to those pictures. I’m tangled in their intricate wonder. I could see the ink and (almost) collage of Jim Kay’s work, but there’s so much more:

“For the illustrations in A Monster Calls, I used Monoprint, Collotype, Aquatint, Etching, and Engraving – also Nature Printing. Then I used a LOT of ink on paper, usually thrown or blown on: any old inks on any old papers. I’m not fussy with regards to materials. Some of the initial drawing was done in pencil, some in ink, some in watercolour, some in monoprint. I would then collage together marks, impressions, prints on paper, cutouts, and then create further layers and collage in Photoshop.” – Jim Kay

I’m in awe of his work and every time I look at his illustrations, I see more. The Yew Tree’s arm on p.185 is a delicate botanical wonder. Kay’s past work at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew was the perfect influence for drawing monstrous life into a Yew Tree called to walk.

The blue end papers of yew leaves and the cover beneath the dust jacket are the only colour in the book design. This clever device from Ben Norland is perfect for such a haunting story. The hidden blue cover has a calmer feel than the rest, the Yew Tree has set down its roots after walking, a glimpse of what’s left when Conor confronts the real monster and embraces his grief.