For all that this was published back in 2011, I hadn’t heard of it until recently…when it apparently hit some kind of popularity spike and now I’ve kind of seen it everywhere. I mean I saw it in the obvious places, like Goodreads and Bookstagram, and that put it on my radar. But then when I was at the library the other day, it was out on a special “recommended by the librarians” display. And really at that point, with it sitting right in front of me, my curiosity got the better of me (I mean come on, it’s a NYT Bestseller and has won multiple awards; not just for the writing, but also the illustrations!) and I couldn’t help but grab it.
“Stories were wild, wild animals that went off in directions you couldn’t expect.”
This is the story of Conor O’Malley, a 13-year-old boy whose mother is gravely ill. He’s been having nightmares since his mother’s diagnosis, so when a monster shows up outside his window at 12:07 one night, he’s expecting the terror from his dreams. But this monster is a different one, something old and wild, and he’s not there to scare Conor in the traditional sense. No, he’s there because he wants something from Conor, something that does, in fact, terrify Conor to think about. This wild monster wants the truth. And he’ll bide his time, telling Conor stories of his own, standing behind Conor as he processes his reality. But in the end, Conor will owe the monster a story of his own, his truth.
I actually had no idea what this story was about going in, no idea what I was getting into, other than a gorgeously illustrated “monster story.” So wow, I was not expecting all the feels that came with it. This is a tender and heartbreaking story, delving into the emotional depths of children who suffer great loss(es), while also recognizing and celebrating the resiliency inside those children. It’s touching and tragic and incredibly poignant. And you will need some tissues. But for all that harsh reality it contains, it’s written with a fable-like feel, like an old school fairy tale might be (think of the atmospheric, but simple fairy tales of your youth, like Hans Christian Anderson or Grimm’s). It’s a haunting combination. I (luckily) did not have any difficult experiences like this growing up, but I could see the truth and universality of Conor’s feelings. And I think if I had experienced anything like that, reading this book would have been very cathartic.
As for the illustrations, I have only good things to say. Super, positive, amazing things. I mean, the textures are just phenomenal. I read in the back of the book that he used everything from beetles to breadboards to make those textured looks…and that full commitment is so clear from the final products. He conveys so much emotion, from fear to sorrow to comfort, in his images. And to be able to have that much depth with so little color (all the illustrations are black and white, and innumerable shades of grey, of course) really just demonstrates his mastery in the craft. So even on their own they are something special. But then alongside the story, the two parts come together to create a totally new reading dimension – an incredibly immersive experience.
This is the type of story that you get lost in. I pretty much finished it in one sitting and, when I was done, I realized that I had totally lost track of the time and where I was (good thing I didn’t have any commitments on the calendar or I totally would have missed them). Although I have read other books that deal with similar concepts, and there are things I like better about those stories (I think this middle grade reading level is just not quite my favorite style), I can truly say that my experience reading this book was completely unique. Since the story and illustrations are presented jointly, they must be judged jointly, so my final thoughts are: this book is something really, really special.