Siobhan Dowd conceived the novel during her own terminal illness. She discussed it and contracted to write it with editor Denise Johnstone-Burt at Walker Books, who also worked with Patrick Ness. After Dowd's death in August 2007, Walker arranged for Ness to write the story. Later, Walker and Ness arranged for Jim Kay to illustrate it, but Ness and Kay did not meet until after it was published in May 2011.
After winning the Carnegie, Ness discussed the writing with The Guardian newspaper:
I wouldn't have taken it on if I didn't have complete freedom to go wherever I needed to go with it. If I'd felt hampered at all – again, even for very good reasons – then that harms the story, I think. And I did this not for egomaniacal reasons, that my decisions were somehow automatically right or some such nonsense, but because I know that this is what Siobhan would have done. She would have set it free, let it grow and change, and so I wasn't trying to guess what she might have written, I was merely following the same process she would have followed, which is a different thing.
I always say it felt like a really private conversation between me and her, and that mostly it was me saying, "Just look what we're getting away with."
Kay was selected based on illustrating one scene, solicited by art director Ben Norland:
Due to other commitments I had a weekend to produce an image, and I very hastily created the scene of the Monster leaning against the house. It was a technique I hadn't tried before, dictated to some degree by the time constraints, which in hindsight may have helped.
I imagine the story as a moving film or piece of theatre, and I start building the props and setting the scenery around the characters. I love atmosphere, and I guess that's what I wanted to contribute. If I'd been left alone I would have avoided all of the key scenes, I was nervous about dealing with them, but Ben was fantastic in giving the book structure and, thankfully, insisting that I should tackle the explosive, energetic elements of the book.
Thirteen-year-old Conor O'Malley waking from the same nightmare he has been experiencing for the past few months, "the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming".
At seven minutes after midnight (12:07), a voice calls to him from outside his bedroom window, which overlooks an old church and its graveyard sheltered by a yew tree. Walking to the window, Conor meets the monster who called, a towering mass of branches and leaves formed in a human shape from the yew tree. The monster is intrigued that Conor is not afraid of it and insists that Conor summoned it. The monster claims to be a version of the green man and warns that it will tell Conor three true stories, after which Conor must tell a story of his own, and if it is not true, the monster will eat him.
The monster continues to meet Conor, almost always at 12:07 am or pm, to tell its stories, which all involve other times the monster was summoned.
Between its tales, which aim to demonstrate the complications inherent in humans, it is revealed that Conor's mother is undergoing chemotherapy and has been afflicted with terminal cancer for the past year. Conor is isolated and alone. His flaky father uses his new family in the USA as an excuse to be detached and unsupportive. His distant relationship with his pushy and cold grandmother provides no comfort either. Conor is a victim of bullying at school and he has distanced himself from all other social contact than that of the monster. As the story progresses, his mother's condition worsens and Conor's encounters with the monster have escalating consequences.The story also mentions an alleged "Pit Monster" and " Sky Monster". This leads some to believe that a sequel was originally planned.
An old king who's lost his entire family save a young grandson remarries a beautiful young woman many claim to be a witch. He dies before the young prince has come of age, leaving the step grandmother as regent. She rules well and fairly, but, not wanting to hand the kingdom over, plots to marry the prince and remain queen.
The prince, who has a lover, runs away with his chosen bride, planning to flee to the neighboring kingdom. There they will marry and wait out the time until he's of age to claim the throne. They stop and sleep under the yew tree (the monster), but in the morning, the young woman is dead. Murdered. The shocked young prince covered in blood.
He tells the villagers who find them that the queen, a witch, must have done it out of jealousy and so he would be tried and hanged for murder, allowing her to keep his kingdom. He also tells the yew tree something which calls the monster awake for vengeance.
Enraged, the commoners rally around the prince to storm the castle, and the monster follows. They capture the queen and condemn her to burn at the stake.
The monster arrives to snatch her from the fire, and carry her away to a far off land where she lives out the rest of her life.
While disagreeable and a witch, she was not the one who had killed the girl. The prince had murdered her under the yew tree in order to inspire his people to back him into overthrowing the queen.
This story may be applied to Conor's grandmother who, like the Queen, while disagreeable and a 'witch', is not guilty of major wrongdoing. This story also discusses the need for humans to lie to themselves, such as the prince who wholeheartedly believes that the queen is responsible for his fiance's death despite her being murdered by his hand, and their willingness to believe those lies for their own comfort and happiness. Because the queen actually was a witch and could have done horrible deeds to procure the throne, but had not done so yet, story one examines how a person should be punished for their actions, rather than their possible future actions, and that many times, those who do wrong go unpunished and live without guilt for their deeds.
A greedy, ill-tempered apothecary who follows the old traditions and beliefs constantly pesters a parson to allow him to cut down the yew tree in the church yard and use it for medicinal ingredients.
The apothecary becomes less and less popular and is nearly ruined, aided by his own foul nature and the parson's active condemning from the pulpit.
When a sickness sweeps the land and many die, the parson goes to the apothecary and asks him to save the lives of his two ill daughters after all other resources are exhausted.
When the apothecary asks why he should help a man who has turned people away from his skills and denied him the yew tree, his best source of healing ingredients, the parson begs. The parson promises to give him the yew tree, and deliver the parishioners to him as patients. In response to the parson's promise to revoke his beliefs and give up everything if only his daughters are healed, the apothecary says that he cannot help him and the girls die.
The monster awakens from the yew tree to destroy the parson's house and raze it to the ground as punishment.
While the apothecary was a nasty, greedy man, he was a healer and would have saved many, including the girls, if the parson had given him the yew tree when first asked. The parson, however, was a man who lived off of belief, but had none of his own and changed beliefs as it suited him and convenience. His disbelief of the apothecary's skill caused many to die, even his children. The healing traditions followed by the apothecary require belief in order to work; without the parson's, the apothecary was unable to treat the two girls.
At the end of the story, Conor participates as the monster destroys the parson's house, to waken and discover that he has vandalized his grandmother's sitting room, shattering many valuable and beloved items beyond repair.
Possible interpretations: This story may be a commentary on Conor's father Liam who is like the parson and chooses what is easy. This story highlights that a person's ability and a person's likability are two very separate entities. Story two places importance on the cheapness of a person's virtue when they find it easy to maintain when times are good, but hard not to sacrifice during difficulties.
There was a man who was invisible because no one ever saw him. Tired of this, he summoned the monster to ensure no one forgot to see him again. The monster made them see, but there are harder things than being invisible.
As this story is told, Conor is briefly possessed by the monster and physically and violently assaults Harry, the school bully, putting the boy in the hospital.
Possible Interpretations: This story is a reflection of Conor's circumstances of feeling invisible since no one sees beyond the story of his dying mother. The conclusion, that there are harder things than being invisible, implies that being seen requires a person to face things which could have been ignored had they remained unseen, and that the method of becoming seen again has lasting consequences.
Conor must confront his nightmare to tell the fourth story, or face being eaten.
His mother has been pulled from a cliff by a terrifying creature from the darkness below and Conor must hold on to her hand to save her from being dragged down by the creature. Eventually, his grip fails and the creature claims his mother.
Conor is forced to confess the truth: he loosened his grip and dropped her on purpose. While he could have held on, he let go in order to stop the pain of having to hold on.
Possible interpretations: the creature with a hold on his mother is cancer, and her fall signifies her death. Conor's desire to let her go and drop her is his secret wish that both his mother's and his own suffering will end and he'll be released from his heavy obligations and burdens of supporting her in her disease.
Ultimately the monster comforts him, revealing that its purpose has been to heal him. The novel closes with Conor accepting that people are complex and must be judged and punished for their actions, not their thoughts, and that prizing the truth is one of the most difficult and important things a person can do.
At 12:07, his mother dies in the hospital.
A Monster Calls received widespread acclaim. Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, praised the novel as "compelling ... powerful and impressive", Similarly, New York Times critic Jessica Bruder wrote "this is one profoundly sad story" and called the novel "a potent piece of art," applauding Kay's illustrations. Daniel Hahn from The Independent also praised A Monster Calls, saying that it was "brave and beautiful, full of compassion," and that "the result trembles with life." Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "a singular masterpiece."
Ness and Kay won the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for writing and illustration, recognising the year's best work published in the UK. The double win alone is unprecedented in more than fifty years since the illustration award was established. A Monster Calls also won the British Children's Book of the Year, voted by an "academy of 750 book industry experts"; the Red House Children's Book Award, overall, a national award voted by British children; and the Kitschies Red Tentacle award for speculative fiction, best novel published in the UK. In the U.S., the American Library Association magazine Booklist named it the "Top of the List" for 2011 youth fiction.
Daily newspapers including The Independent, Chicago Sun-Times, and The Wall Street Journal named it to year-end "Best" lists.
On 5 March 2014, Focus Features bought the film rights to the book and at the time committed $20 million in P&A to release the movie. On 9 April 2014, it was announced that a film based on the book would be released by Focus Features on 14 October 2016. The film was directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and written by the book's author Patrick Ness. On 23 April 2014, Felicity Jones joined the film to play the boy's mother. On 8 May, Liam Neeson joined the film to voice the Monster. On 18 August, Sigourney Weaver joined to play the boy's grandmother. On 19 August, Toby Kebbell also joined the film to play the boy's father.
The film premiered on September 10, 2016 at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It was released in Spain on October 7, 2016 and was released in the United States on January 5th, 2017