The Weight of a Book

A Monster CallsYou’re only young once, they say, but doesn’t it go on for a long time? More years than you can bear.

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.

Monster on the shed

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.

A monster calls

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.



About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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8 Responses to The Weight of a Book

  1. I adored this book, passed it on to my husband, who loved it from there we spread it around to colleagues. It is such an honest portrayal of grief as experienced by many children and adults. The powerful illustrations enhance the story.

    I too thank Walker books, they have published my two books of the year: this and Soonchild.

  2. Christina says:

    Just the cover alone stopped me in my tracks.

  3. Christina says:

    I just visited Jim Kay’s website and this quote also stopped me in my tracks:

    “I have very fond childhood memories of being in the back seat of a car watching fields and farmland rush by. During the hour of twilight, the familiar objects began to lose their definition, became dark, anonymous forms. The countryside at night through the window of a car was both frightening and compelling; the everyday merged with the unknown, and this is how Patrick‚Äôs story felt to me.”

    I have the very same memories, heading off on family camping and caravanning trips, leaving in the evening to get as far from ‘civilisation’ as we can the first night. Leaning my head against a pillow propped against the car window, looking out into the dark night and wondering what giants might be out there, what I would feel if the stars were suddenly blotted out by a giant shape rising up from the land. Terrifying and exhilarating in equal measures.

  4. Jane says:

    Thanks for pointing me in this direction, sounds like a book I would enjoy too.

    Such a lovely post today, I loved the words you wrote about your Uncle. I could recognise your feeling of not wanting to look into his eyes I’ve experienced that too. My dad died when I was 23 and although we were told he was dying my mum decided he wouldn’t want to know so we had to hide the knowledge from him. I feared if I looked into his eyes he would see the truth in mine.

    Jane x

  5. Mo Crow says:

    will have to look out for this one, thanks for the heads up!

  6. Carrie says:

    Just by the power of the illustrations alone I will have to get myself a copy of this book… just, compelling aren’t they…!

  7. Tammie says:

    such a moving post! my heart absorbed in all your words…. and without the actual novel, these pictures of the art….. have a phenomenal depth of feeling.

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