This post contains spoilers.
These two young adult novels were recommended by a friend as research for my own novel. They are wildly different books, and each was really useful (in its own way) to look at from a writer’s perspective. As a reader I enjoyed them both, but Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls has left a more lasting impression on my mind. I’ve read a couple of John Green’s other novels, and have sort of grown used to his writing style. I have never, on the other hand, read anything quite like A Monster Calls.
John Green has become something of a superstar in the world of young adult literature – his books go straight to the bestseller list, and both The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns have been adapted for film (while I was reading Paper Towns in Australia last month there seemed to be movie posters for the novel everywhere). There’s good reason for this – Green’s writing is intelligent, honest, and a little quirky. And when it comes to theme, Green isn’t afraid to get a bit philosophical. His writing doesn’t talk down to kids, which might go some way towards explaining his popularity with young adults, and also the fear he manages to inspire in some grown-ups (such as Karen Krueger, who was so concerned about The Fault in Our Stars she had the book banned from all Riverside Unified School District middle schools).
Paper Towns may be a little less controversial, but it is just as complex. It tells the story of Quentin Jacobsen’s search for Margo Roth Spiegelman – a girl he has been in love with for years. As kids Quentin and Margo stumbled across a dead body together, and ever since Quentin has felt that they share a special bond. When Margo runs away Quentin expects to be able to find her. The clues she left seem meant just for him, and he is the only one who understands who she really is. Or does he? Paper Towns is a clever examination of how we see others in the way we want to see them, rather than as they really are.
I felt that while Paper Towns is thematically and philosophically very strong, in terms of storytelling it drags a little. I loved the idea of a paper town (a town that doesn’t really exist but is just a sort of map-filler), and the comparisons with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass are great. However, a lot of the story feels repetitive, and there are a few too many dead ends and red herrings in the plot. I didn’t find myself engaging as much with this as I have with Green’s other novels (particularly An Abundance of Katherines). I wonder if some young adults, particularly those who need a bit of a push to get reading, might feel the same way.
A Monster Calls
I read this short, intense novel so fast it left me feeling like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. A Monster Calls was written by Patrick Ness, but the original idea came from a friend of his, author Siobhan Dowd. Dowd died before she could write the novel, so Ness wrote it for her.
The plot of A Monster Calls is fairly simple, almost fairytale-like in structure, but emotionally complex. While 13-year-old Conor O’Malley’s mother is dying, he is visited at the same time each night by a monstrous yew tree. The monster is at once terrifying and comforting; it tells Conor stories, and its ultimate goal is to get Conor to admit to his darkest fear – not that his mother will die, but that he is so exhausted that he wishes it was over already.
I think what works best about this novel is the way it uses magic realism – the monster is extremely vivid, and the story sits somewhere between painful realism and absolute fantasy. This, in combination with Jim Kay’s incredible illustrations, results in a text that is dark, unique, and beautiful.
I felt that the ending came a bit fast, and I wanted to know more about some of the characters (the bully, for example, who tells Conor eerily – “I no longer see you”). But overall I loved this novel. It felt, to me, like a true piece of young adult literature, and a work of art.
Paper Towns debuted at number five on the bestseller list, and won the 2009 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery.
A Monster Calls won the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals in 2012. Patrick Ness is also the author of The Chaos Walking Trilogy.