A Monster Calls: Carnegie and Kate Greenaway winner 2012
The history of Patrick Ness and Jim Kay’s A Monster Calls, winner of both the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals for 2012, has several unusual elements: the book’s genesis was Siobhan Dowd’s notes for a novel she was unable to complete before her untimely death; the novel would not have completed had it not been for the editorial and design team at Walker Books; their chosen writer Patrick Ness is only the second author to win the Carnegie Medal in consecutive years. How important is all this in assessing this prize-winning book? Books for Keeps invites the views of a range of children’s book specialists.
Julia Eccleshare, children’s book editor of the Guardian
Was A Monster Calls the best book of the year? One best book is always hard but it is a very good book indeed. Although it is about death, it is vital and brimful of life; although lyrical and passionate, it also grounded and textually granular. Should Ness have become only the second person to win two consecutive Carnegie Medals? No. He should have won it once for The Knife of Never Letting Go and then had a more traditional gap before scooping it again in 2012. The back-to-back Medals are no more significant than if they had been separated by someone else’s success. Ness is very likely to write another Carnegie prize winning novel but so too are Mal Peet, Meg Rosoff, Frank Cottrell Boyce and many others. But that’s being picky. Historically, and that’s also a valuable way of judging these things, this double whammy won’t distort the deserved truth about Ness’s quality and status in these years.
As to the unique achievement of A Monster Calls winning both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, praise first to Jim Kay who so brilliantly combines strong images with great delicacy as he evokes the emotions at the heart of the novel, perfectly matching Ness’s storytelling. But behind Kay’s individual skill, there’s another Medal winner: Walker Books had most of the nominations for the 2012 Kate Greenaway Medal and their core philosophy has always been a passionate belief in the quality of the book as a physical object. To conceive a great novel as a great picture book too is a visionary commitment to the reader. Walker deserve all the plaudits they have received for this. Let’s hope it sets a trend…
Geoff Fox, formerly Co-Editor (UK) of Children’s Literature in Education.
It’s an illusion that young readers love; a story which seems to be telling itself, the language running wild. A headlong reader cares nothing for the realities of the graft of writing, illustrating and editing. This tale grew from notes left by one writer who died tragically young, another invited to develop those notes, a young artist illustrating just his second book and the editorial team at Walkers steering the novel towards publication. That ought not to have worked. Collaborations so easily generate neutered language – all the blood drained away. Yet from these different elements has come a haunting work in which words and images interplay with rhythmic inevitability. Driving it all, the yew tree monster’s stories, its harsh yet loving insistence that Con tells himself the truth. Poor Con, who knows but refuses to know that his mother is dying far too soon of cancer – much as Dowd died before she could develop her notes.
Elizabeth Hammill, co-founder Seven Stories
I find that this haunting novel remains etched on my memory – vivid, alive, tender, terrifying and truthful. If its origins are poignant, the editorial decision to marry Patrick Ness’ development of the late Siobhan Dowd’s original ideas with illustrations by Jim Kay was inspired – demonstrating just how powerfully interacting words and pictures can tell a story for older readers. Ness creates a dark, heart- wrenching but ultimately hopeful story that is tautly told, poetic, dramatic, mythic, ambiguous and riveting. Kay’s subtly nuanced but bold black and white illustrations, spilling over from one page to the next, are an organic part of the storytelling – atmospheric, shadowy, heightening the light and dark and adding an unusual emotional depth to a tale of a young teenager facing something ‘beyond terrible’. Together they convey a truth – unsentimental and rare – that had me in tears from early on.
Everything about A Monster Calls speaks of love, care, an artistic attention to bookmaking and to the potential reader’s experience that made a double Medal win the only possibility (one that the Seven Stories’ shadowing panel unanimously supported).
Clive Barnes, formerly Principal Children’s Librarian, Southampton
The singular power of this book, it seems to me, is drawn from the way in which the words and pictures between them create a sense of Conor’s desperation: a state of mind barely pegged to everyday reality (although he has to live there), wracked with a storm of pain, anger and impotence, where only the embrace of what is unthinkable can free him. And the wonderful development beyond this book is that we are beginning again to see books for older children in which text and illustration can work in this way. David Almond’s and Dave McKean’s Slogger’s Dad (also on the Greenaway shortlist) is another brilliant example. I say again because I am old enough to remember Charles Keeping’s illustrations for Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels and Edward Blishen’s and Leon Garfield’s The God Beneath the Sea. But there is also something new in this contemporary relationship of text and illustration that makes it seem more organic than in the past. Possibly this comes from new possibilities in book production, more imaginative design (and author and illustrator were right to give credit to the Walker design team); and the application of what has been learned in picture books and graphic novels.
Long may it continue.
Ferelith Hordon, Chair, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Judges 2011
Traditionally the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals have been very separate, and for some time picture books with their younger audience have been regarded as the appropriate medium for illustration. As a result, shadowing has concentrated on the Carnegie. Recently the tide has been turning; the tradition of the illustrated novel has been rediscovered allowing barriers to be broken down. Could A Monster Calls have won either Medal alone? Yes, because each are judged separately – Jim Kay’s starkly powerful work complements and extends the text as the Greenaway criteria demand; Ness in his writing provides not just a surface pleasure but that ‘deeper subconscious satisfaction’ required for the Carnegie . That it won both Medals is a testament to the judging process; truly an outstanding novel on all counts.
Caroline Sanderson, writer and journalist
A Monster Calls is a story that inhabits your imagination to the extent that you can’t remember a time when you hadn’t read it. It twines around you, and seeds itself in your consciousness; just as its yew tree monster twists and shape-shifts and spread its needles. It is both simple and hard to fathom. It both shocks and lulls. It opens wounds and then heals them. And no-one reacts as you expect. Neither the hand-shaking bully Harry. Nor Conor’s house-proud grandmother confronted with her trashed living room. Nor the prince in the monster’s story. Nor yet Conor himself whose violent outburst is a genuinely seismic moment.
And yet this is also the deeply familiar story of all our lives. Death has tapped each of us on the shoulder. Some of us have only given it a backward glance so far. Some of us have already stared it full in the face. But we know it will come again, and the sooner we really know it, the more alive we will be.
Nicholas Tucker, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies, Sussex University
Monsters can symbolise many things, not least one of those cruel human afflictions that seemingly invade the mind or body and then go on to threaten life and sometimes sanity. Two fine novelists in the recent past wrote stories around this theme. One was William Mayne’s A Game of Dark, far too good a story to be lost now because of the author’s current state of disgrace. The other was Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, memorably illustrated by Marjorie-Ann Watts. This haunting novel was later made into a film and an opera. I would now add A Monster Calls to this role of honour. The story of a thirteen-year-old boy fighting his mother’s disease which in his imagination has taken on the shape of a monster blends fantasy and reality into an unforgettable whole. Illustrated by Jim Kay in appropriately black line drawings, the final result is a perfect blend of prose and pictures at a time when illustrations for any teenage novels are hard indeed to find.
Damian Kelleher, journalist and writer
There’s a theory that as children get older, and as their reading skills develop, they no longer need illustrations in their books. Of course it’s perfectly true. Illustrations aren’t ‘needed’ to tell stories because if the storytelling is good enough, the illustrations appear in the reader’s mind, as if by magic. But this propagates the myth that ‘serious’ writing shouldn’t be illustrated. A Monster Calls blows that myth out of the water.
Just as a clever writer can lead her or his readers on a tangled track through the undergrowth of the imagination, a gifted illustrator can bring us up sharply. The texture and spikiness and subtlety of Jim Kay’s illustrations throw Ness’s narrative into relief. They offer moments of pure clarity and wonder, of terror and joy. They turn an incisive, enlightening and touching story into something tangible that can be treasured by readers of all ages: they turn it into a book. If the legacy of this work is more illustrated books for more readers, both author and illustrator can feel justifiably proud.
Nicolette Jones, journalist and writer
The publicity surrounding this win sustains attention for Siobhan Dowd and her legacy, both for her superlative books and for the valuable work of the Siobhan Dowd Trust. But this peripheral benefit aside, both text and illustration deserved their wins. A Monster Calls works so well because of Ness’s determination to tell the truth about feelings, his skill with structure, atmosphere and suspense, the complexity of his characters, his wit and his plain-speaking, unfussy prose that nevertheless resonates with big ideas and profound emotions. Jim Kay’s images are remarkable for the way they complement the text, for their suggestiveness rather than their literalness, as well as for their sheer technical dexterity, their innovation, their richness of texture, their depth and variety even within the limitations of black and white. This collaboration shows that when both author and illustrator have unusual abilities and commitment, they can produce something enduring that seems more than the sum of its parts.
Marilyn Brocklehurst, Norfolk Children’s Book Centre
Patrick Ness’s beautifully observed and deeply moving story, along with Jim Kay’s sinewy, sombre and terrifying illustrations combine superbly to make A Monster Calls a perfect book. Conor struggles to cope with impossible heart-break as he watches his mother dying of cancer. The monster that calls at his window offers him the opportunity to explore his feelings and eventually to recognise the complexity of bereavement and the isolation which accompanies the pain. This is an important book which enables young readers to observe somebody of their own age dealing with a situation which is depriving him of his childhood and compromising his future. He is lost, enraged, desperate. Finally it is the monster that shows him how it is possible to survive. Conor’s conversation with his mother toward the end of the book is poignant and personal and I wept copiously. Ness has taken Siobhan Dowd’s nascent story and turned it into a classic.