This review is of Monacello: The Little Monk by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Jana Diemberger.
Image courtesy of http://www.janadiemberger.co.uk
What it’s about: Monacello is an orphan, left abandoned at the gates of a convent, where he is received with revulsion because of his unusual looks. Only the kindly Sister Clementa finds it in her heart to take the odd-looking baby in and nurture him. One day he asks her if she is his mother and, when he hears that he is motherless, his heart breaks.
Monacello decides to search for his mother outside of the convent, where is reviled by the people of Naples for his looks. Driven into Naples’ Undercity, Monacello lives amongst stray cats as he continues his quest to find his mother. Amongst his travels, he makes friends with Napolina, a fellow foundling, and a new relationship blossoms.
The story is based on a legend which Geraldine McCaughrean discovered while visiting a friend in the city. On the Phoenix Yard Books’ website, she says: ‘[My friend] showed me the city’s best secret – its Undercity: a gloomy, buried world of ruined houses and streets. Then I found out Naples has a secret inhabitant too – part-good, part-bad; a bringer of good luck and trouble; a boy with a sad history of his own. Legends like Monacello’s date from a time when stories were not just for children; when they hovered in everyone’s brain, somewhere between made-up and true. I never cared much for wicked villains or superheroes. Monacello is a mixture of sun and shadow – like we all are. My sort of hero.’
Sam’s review: No, I haven’t forgotten Holly this week. Unfortunately Holly couldn’t be persuaded to read this book, and what put her off was the cover – the very thing that drew me to pick it up in our local bookshop. For Holly, the image of Monacello peering out with his scarily hypnotic eyes was too much. The illustrations were too dark, too sinister, for her to contemplate. So I thought it was time to have a read and report on my findings.
I very much enjoyed the story because it is quite different to most children’s books. I think what truly differentiates it are the illustrations, as there are plenty of stories with mistreated children and cruelty that Holly has read but they normally have a different style of drawing. Often wacky or abstract pictures are included which makes the story seem less intense and real. Perhaps it tones down the message, whereas Jana Diemberger’s pastels draw you in and hold you down. You cannot escape the horror of Monacello’s world and I can see how that might be too much for younger readers. Take a look at this image of the newly found Monacello:
Image courtesy of jana1985.deviantart.com
Artistically it is beautiful,particularly the shading, but it is also unsettling. The baby looks rather unreal, unnatural, which is a huge departure (in my opinion) in children’s book illustrations, which tend towards pen sketches or more uplifting colours. I saw McCaughrean and Diemberger at Waterstone’s in Oxford and they revealed that there was hesitation at first in using such drawings for the book in case they frightened children away but they stayed with them, which I believe was the right choice (apparently some of the ones before these were even darker!).
I started by talking about the illustrations first because I believe this will ultimately influence whether you pick the book up or not. I did simply because I had never seen such a style used in children’s books. Would a child pick it up? I wonder. It might be a good experiment to try at school!
As for the story, it is told beautifully, as is to be expected, by McCaughrean. The style is pared-back and minimal but no less powerful for this. Monacello is very much a strong literary example of nurture over nature – how human beings can be shaped by the things that happen to them and the way they are treated by others. This is shown in a repeated refrain throughout the book:
- “‘Ugly? Is that what I am?’ thought Monacello, and put on ‘ugly’ like another little dark robe.”
- “‘Is that what I am? Bad Luck?’ thought Monacello. ‘All right then… that’s what I’ll be.” And he put on Bad Luck like one more black and itchy robe.”
- “He just slipped into ‘lonely’ like yet another damp, dark robe.”
Image courtesy of jana1985.deviantart.com
The tragedy of course is that Monacello is not bad at heart. If anything, he’s more sensitive than most others, seen in how he mourns the loss of his mother while still at the convent. While the nuns complain of owls howling at night, we hear that “…it was only Monacello, crying for his lost mother.’ And when the nuns become frustrated at the noise of cats during the day, we are told that Monacello was “…whimpering as he searched for his lost mother.”
Monacello eventually finds some sort of temporary peace after being knocked down a well (and presumed drowned) by the Frezza brothers. “He fell without a cry. Motherless Monacello, unloved as a kitten drowned in a bucket.” However, instead of dying, Monacello is led into the Undercity of Naples, where he becomes wild like the masses of stray cats who live there. His first experience of friendship is with these felines, “He gave them names… and the cats loved him for it. No one had given them anything as nice as names before.”
From this point onwards the story is more upbeat, as Monacello wreaks havoc on his tormentors with acts of petty crime. However, when he meets fellow homeless child Napolina in a church, his actions are called into question. Suddenly his good side starts to shine through, as he gives the cold and hungry girl shelter and one of his cloaks. By giving a robe to her, his luck changes and people start responding to him differently. “‘They think I’m lucky… and maybe I AM!’ So he put on Good Luck like a little lambswool robe and it felt lovely and soft.”
However, all is not finished. Monacello and Napolina are put into danger and Monacello’s world is at risk of crumbling once again. But I won’t say any more in case I spoil it for you.
As an adult I would recommend Monacello as a deeply moving and lovely story. I think that children from Holly’s age and up could enjoy it, as long as you think that they are capable of hearing and coping with the very harsh realities of how humans can and do mistreat one another. This obviously does exist in many children’s books (just take a look at fairy tales for examples!) but somehow this story got to me much more. I believe this is because of McCaughrean’s powerful characterisation of Monacello, complemented by Diemberger’s emotive illustrations. Perhaps the safest bet would be to show them the book first to gauge their reactions to the pictures because, while they are incredible, they can unsettle.
Have you read Monacello? Do you like the sort of images Diemberger uses in this story?