Last week, author Patrick Ness won the
Carnegie Medal, and illustrator Jim Kay won the Kate Greenaway Medal for A Monster Calls. This double honour speaks to the
profound beauty and power of the book: a story of a boy whose mother is sick
with cancer. It’s a dark,
haunting, and sad story, but it’s also a hopeful story, a narrative that
acknowledges the child’s capacity for every human emotion, good and bad. It points to the infinite depth and
potential children possess, and credits them with the ability to face sadness
and darkness. Indeed, this is a
point Ness returns to again and again in his work. In a recent interview, Ness states “my books for teenagers have all ended up being about
being heard. About being taken seriously. About being treated as a complex
creation who doesn't always get things right but – importantly – also doesn't
always get things wrong”. And, to adults who worry that A Monster Calls is too sad for children,
Ness explains: “I've always disagreed - I think kids are far more aware and
open to these things than we give them credit for".
This statement will come
as no surprise to readers of Ness’ Chaos
Walking trilogy, a series that addresses issues of children and war, and
presents its child-characters with questions of humanity, morality, and justice
in a sweeping story of colonization and coming-of-age. Indeed, Ness’ final installment in the
trilogy, Monsters of Men, from which
the title of this post is derived, was awarded the Carnegie last year, making
Ness among two authors to have been awarded the prize consecutively.
In his most recent acceptance
speech, Ness mounted an impassioned defence of
libraries and teenager readers, trumpeting his belief that teenagers deserve
and can handle these difficult narratives of the world, capable of
understanding their immense complexity and nuance. To me, this message could not be more timely: a statement
which is unfortunate, but true. We
live in a world where we can’t deny the existence of terrible things: where
news and media allow us glimpses of atrocity, reminding us that across the
world people, and specifically children, suffer. Indeed, it seems an inescapable truth that in war and
conflict, young people suffer the most.
The BBC reports that in Syria, children as young as ten are being subject
to torture, targeted in violent encounters, and used by soldiers as human
Meanwhile, it is estimated that
there are 250,000 child soldiers in the world today, some abducted from their
homes, others forced into military groups by extreme poverty. Child-soldiers are seen as ideal by the
adults who target them: their impressionability and vulnerability allowing them
to be easily manipulated, and their numbers making them easily expendable.
We live in a scary world. But again and again, by leaders, by
activists, and by artists, like Ness, we are reminded that there can be hope
and change in it too.
|June 8, 1972|
This month marks the 40th anniversary of
the famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phuc, a
photograph snapped as she fled a bombing in Vietnam, her body burned by napalm. The picture became famous for its
portrayal of the pain and suffering of conflict and war.
Less known however, is the story of what
followed. The photographer took
the photo, then ran to the little girl.
He gave her water and put water on her burns, and then later, he and a
group of journalists fought for her transfer to a hospital where she could
receive adequate treatment for her injuries. Kim Phuc grew up, came to Canada, and after years of
attempting to escape the fame the picture had brought her, began to speak and
tour publicly. She met with, and
forgave, the pilots who it is believed dropped the napalm that burned her. She became a UNSECO Ambassador for
Peace. And she established the Kim
Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding groups that provide medial
care and attention to child-victims of war and conflict.
|Kim Phuc in 2007|
I know this blog post is a bit
disjointed: it’s moved from mythical monsters and wars set on another planet, to
very real stories of modern-day Syria and the Vietnam War. But as violence rages in the world, as
more and more images emerge of children killed and harmed in conflict, I think
that these seemingly disparate strands can and should be drawn together in the
powerful picture they create.
For me, there is no better way to honour
the awarding of the Carnegie and Greenaway medal, and no better way to mark the
40th anniversary of the photo that brought the atrocities of Vietnam
to the world’s attention, than this.
These images, these books, remind us why we do what we do, and why we
study what we study. We do it
because we believe children deserve these artists: the ones who give them
credit, who believe in their voices, who recognize their potential to be hurt
and human, and who recognize their tremendous capacity to impact the
world. We do it because we believe
art has power. We do it because we
believe that humans can be so much more than the monsters of men we see all too
Patrick Ness’ work, the picture of Kim Phuc,
her later life’s work: all these speak to the profound power of art, art to
awaken the world, art to change the world, art to change the child. And, they point to the profound power of
even the most injured child to grow up, to give back, and to challenge us to do
In a 2008, Kim Phuc wrote:
“Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have
many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed.
Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more
powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with
true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it,
ask yourself: Can you?”
Labels: A Monster Calls, Carnegie Medal, Chaos Walking, Child Soldiers, Children, children's literature, Jim Kay, Kate Greenaway Medal, Kim Phuc, Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness, Syria, Vietnam War, war