Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love.
It sat on the shelf beside my bed for a while. In between books I would pick it up and feel the weight of it in my hands and turn the pages looking at the images. Amazing images. So strong. And then one day I began reading it.
There is something about Patrick Ness’s writing that leaves me breathless. Words fall away before my eyes, the story gets into your blood somehow and the space you inhabit when reading is something else, somewhere else. Somehow you fall right there, between the pages and into the world of the monster, with Conor. How does he do this? How does he take the small stones and bones of a story left behind by another writer and make a tale so powerful that it picks you up in its great monstrous yew tree hands and shakes you until you fight for breath, until all the things you have hidden rise up, until the truth comes out?
I did not meet Siobhan Dowd, though many friends of mine have and all who speak of her do so with love. I think I would have liked her.
I found ‘A Monster Calls’ on the shelves at The Norfolk Children’s Book Centre. Standing flicking through the pages Marilyn Brocklehurst walked past, carrying a pile of books and said, ‘that’s brilliant’. Even without her recommendation I knew as soon as I felt the weight of the book in my hands that it would be going home with me. And yet I am busy. I have other books to read. The monster sat and waited. And then it won the Greeneway award for its astonishing illustrations and the Carnegie for its wonderful words.
When I was 14 or so my uncle died. He was in so many respects the image of the monster in this book. He loved to work on his allotment in his spare time and had a wonderful shed full of tools and seeds. He always carried, in his pocket, the dried seeds of runner beans, like odd tokens or worry beads, smoothed by his touch. A giant of a man, he worked all his life in a foundry and coal in his lungs killed him. I was young, he seemed old, but not old enough to die. I watched him as he shrank from being a giant until he was skin and bone and my dad, his younger brother by 18 years could pick him up in his arms and carry him like a child. Towards the end I wanted so much for him to die and not be in pain. When we visited I couldn’t look him in the eye, didn’t want to see. When he died I was so angry. So many years ago.
I often wonder what happens to things that authors and illustrators leave behind when they die. I remember seeing a poignant picture of Pauline Bayne’s desk taken a few days before she died. She was working on a painting for a book. What happens to their brushed, Maurice Sendak’s pencils and paints, jottings for stories etc.
So, I would like to say thank you, Walker Books. A Monster Calls is a perfect thing. Thank you for having the courage to make a thing of beauty, for having the courage to use black and white illustrations. For a black and white book it is so very full of colour. Jim Kay’s wonderful pieces add so beautifully to the book. Thank you for taking Siobhan’s story to Patrick Ness. No one else could have given it the grace that he does. I even love the fact that it was printed and bound in the UK by MPG Books ltd.
There is nothing about this book that is not perfect. I wish that I had had it in my life 36 years ago to help me make sense of the storm. We all have monsters. But sometimes the ones that come calling for us are not the ones we expect.