As children grow, so too does their understanding of themselves and the world they live in. As they develop friendships, the value systems and practices of families intermingle and on occasion become tangled. This issue of Bookisshh explores two works which deal with death as a result of illness and/or depression. Please note: both books have screen adaptations and no matter how you tackle these titles, they will bring tears to your eyes and needed conversation to your home.
A Monster Calls: An Idea Inspired by Siobahn Dowd
by Patrick Ness
Set in contemporary England, adolescent Conor’s mum has terminal cancer and is just entering the terminal stages. At the story’s behest, Conor lives at home with his mum and with assistance from his come-and-go grandma, manages his mom, the house and himself. One evening a dream becomes reality when Conor is visited by a Yew tree monster, who uses a series of visits to tell tales which will aid Conor in confronting the gravity in his situation.
Let’s pause here and imagine reading a story of this nature with your Middle Grade reader which can trickle down to a savvy 10 year old… We have already dealt with the loss of a fish, frog and friends of the family, but we haven’t lost among the closest loved one. However, not planning doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t plan.
During reading our conversations were remarkable, spontaneous and deeply satisfying for both of us. My son predicted mum’s illness and we prepared for it’s conclusion by way of his quiet questions, and thoughtful and clinical answers provided by me. When I couldn’t take it, I cried a little, and our son shared that it’s ok and that it’s beautiful to care for life even when it’s in a story. Reassured of his ok-ness onward we sailed. He never lost a wink of shuteye after reading and was interested in reading till the end. I was astounded by his emotional grounding and capacity to acknowledge, confront and gently put away his feelings. It gives a parent peace of mind.
A Monster Calls is loaded with foreshadowed symbolic imagery. Dreams are used to suggest what is to come which is common during emotional growth. Little seeds are planted and grow later in the story, and though passing storms challenge them, they thrive in spite. While a somewhat painful of story given that within it there is illness, death, divorce, broken family bonds, emotional and spiritual isolation, one person, in this case Conor, uses his will to hold all of these threads together. This book is uniquely powerful.
Written by Patrick Ness, inspired by Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls has been awarded both the Carnegie and Greenway medals and is one of the only books to have been awarded both. Siobhan Dowd conceived the idea for this book when she was diagnosed with cancer and Ness picked up the pen and finished the story. The film adaptation, directed by J.A. Bayona and screenplay by Patrick Ness was released in 2016 with Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson and Sigourney Weaver among the stars cast. There is never a right time to prepare for death, but A Monster Calls provides a unique opportunity to do so or at least talk about death. When we share big things like death, with our children, it sinks deeply within them and fosters the actions and paths they choose later in life because they have a rooted understanding of the entire process and not the dramatic highs and lows of death. It leaves them with a plan and choices which is always a good place to start when overwhelming things loom.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Recently two things occurred that peaked my interest in revisiting Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. First, our school district responded with great urgency to the Netflix release of the series and the concern for the impact it might have on emerging adults. Second, a friend of our daughter’s was begging her to purchase it as a birthday gift for her and the girl’s family are expert readers with a broad aptitude for content and genre. As I said, “Not gonna happen–” my eyebrow went up, play was pushed and pages were read.
Translated and distributed in 36 countries, Thirteen Reasons Why has become social currency and a rite of passage at the same time. In the future it will become a stage emerging adults pass through. While fingers point and tongues wag blaming Social Media and liberal parenting, the root causes for the book’s popularity remains undiscussed. Social Media, due to its privacy and primacy, facilitates in teens a lengthy kite string allowing them to fly in a dangerous part of the sky. As parents, it’s our job to give our children roots and wings, and not wings with strings that are easily broken ending in tragic destinies. Root cause: the important conversations often don’t take place where they should begin–at home. Assumptions that school addresses things is handed to peer groups and is brokered and fragmented via Social Media which for some emerging adults is the only perceived place for them to go to.
The book version of Thirteen Reasons Why centers around two points of view, Clay Jenssen, current recipient of cassette tapes explaining the suicide motive of Hannah Baker, narrative of said tapes. The book uses 13 tapes to link together key players of the continued emotional wounding of Hannah and how it pushed her closer to her grave. Clay’s ears are the reader’s ears and insight into the story, and the book focuses on his discovery and reaction to what he learns from Hannah’s tapes. The scenes reenacted are not graphic and explicit but are deeply touching as any person’s pain and unresolved conflicts may be. The Netflix series HOWEVER, explores points of view, however brief, shallow and unreliable of the victim, family and perpetrators. Narrative time is spent showing rape, substance abuse, high risk sexual behavior and a lengthy suicide scene which pretty much gutted my heart. For the wrong person these scenes can be instructive as coping mechanisms ESPECIALLY when IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS haven’t taken place.
My recommendation, have important conversations and don’t leave them to institutions outside the home. Let those groups challenge and/or compliment what you and your family establish at home. Further, don’t shy away from this material. Instead try to incorporate it into what you want to say and how you might say it. Powerful work whether literature, film, theater, music or television is important to a Democracy even when said work makes us uncomfortable. It is our discomfort that holds our truths, so let’s work with them and live better.