A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness
Updated: Mar 30
‘A Monster Calls’, by Patrick Ness, follows Conor, a 13 year old boy with serious hardships. He faces bullying at school. On top of that, his mother suffers from a life-threatening illness. As his mother’s health rapidly declines, an even greater terror begins to take form. Conor is looking for help. He finds it, but not in the way he expected, when a creature begins to visit him in the night.
Ness treats his young readers with respect by simplifying nothing. This is dark and beautiful language throughout. There will be any number of things to discuss with this text, in upper primary or lower secondary. The greatest reason for using it, however, might be that people respond to it. It’s engaging. What could be a better starting point? Ness treats his young readers with respect by simplifying nothing.
The greatest reason for using it, however, might be that people respond to it. It’s engaging. What could be a better starting point?"
While there should be one in every room, there would be so much for a group to explore in a lit circle if they had the shared experience of reading it (get multiples). With some scaffolding around what author’s do, there is a lot that can be explored here.
How can I use it to teach? What awareness can students take to other texts?
Analysing: different types of conflict. This doesn't get a lot of airtime in primary schools, but it's fair game. In short, there are different types of conflict in literature. Person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. self, person vs. society and some others. A quick search on the internet will find summaries of this. Thinking about which ones the author is using can add to understanding.
In this story, there is conflict between Conor and others at school, his grandmother, and there is conflict between Conor and himself. There is conflict between Conor and the tree, but how people characterise that might change as the story goes on. Once the idea is introduced that there are different types of conflict, people may begin to pick up on other examples in this story.
Analysing other literary devices. Ness uses foreshadowing on several occasions. Once you’ve sighted one, others will appear to you. Symbolism, which could involve a single ongoing discussion about the Monster throughout the whole text. What is it really? There are devices that can be recognised and explored here.
Other inference: there are so many opportunities to make inferences about what the Monster is telling Conor. It speaks cryptically at times, and tells stories, which lend themselves to asking, “Why?” These are discussions which will lend themselves to student-student discussions, because they have no clear answers.
Critiquing: how realistic is it? While the events in the text are of course surreal, the thoughts and feelings of Conor can seem brutally real. In critiquing this, a reader will find themselves comparing Conor’s thoughts and behaviours to how they would handle situations with bullies, family, etc.
There are a handful of discussions that students can have throughout the course of the text (e.g. analysing Conor’s character traits- as they change with his circumstances). An older discussion group will find plenty to discuss with this novel, but can be scaffolded a little further with a few teaching points.
If you’re teaching upper primary, add this one to your repertoire. This is rich literature for young people at its best.