OK, I'm a little late on this one; it won the Carnegie last year. But better late than never, particularly with a book as darkly beautiful and profound as this one.
Written by Patrick Ness (quickly becoming the name in YA literature, particularly for boys), but based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls tells the story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, whose relationship with his grandmother is fraught, whose father has a new family on the other side of the Atlantic: a boy who is being bullied at school, and who has horrific nightmares that destroy the only supposed peaceful time he should have. So far, so cheery. Into this mess comes a Monster, a force of nature who arrives one night armed with three stories.
"Stories are wild creatures," the Monster said. "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"
They are fairy-style tales ('long ago...a wicked witch...') but they do not end the way our hero, Conor, expects them to. In fact, they infuriate him. They expose injustice. They tell us that not all stories have happy endings - the Monster is forewarning us about the very book we are reading. They tell us that people are complicated, that right and wrong, good and evil, are never straightforward concepts.
Then the Monster wants something in return. He wants a story from Conor. But not just any story: he wants the story of Conor's recurring nightmare. For buried inside this nightmare is a painful Truth, and before he can begin to come to terms with his mother's inevitable death, Conor must face this Truth. He must speak it aloud.
There is an element of Fight Club to this book, most noteably in the scene where the Monster beats up the school bully, and intelligent young readers will quickly pick up on what is really happening here.
But what truly brings this book to life are the extraordinary illustrations by Jim Kay, and I urge you to buy the version that contains them - I can't imagine why they have even bothered to publish it without them, but mine is not to reason why.
How's this for a visual representation of the fear of losing your mother?
The pictures, which often take up double pages, curl tendrils into the text and literally weave themselves around the words. They are terrifying, comforting, astonishing... beautiful.
One word of warning though - for the last quarter of the book, you will need tissues!