Book: Walter Dean Myers. Monster. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Criminal Fiction
Audience: Grades 7 to 12 (and up)
Read-Aloud: Pretty Good for Being Sick and Drugged
Summary: Steve Harmon is a 16 year old black teenager growing up on the streets of Harlem. He gets accused of working as a lookout for a drugstore robbery that winds up as a homicide with the drugstore owner getting shot. Throughout the novel Steve is on trial for his participation in the crime, with a guilty verdict hanging over his head that could net him 25 to life if the jury is not swayed by his defense lawyer. Steve tells the story in a scene-by-scene movie scripted format when he is in the court room intermixed with sections from a journal that he keeps when he has to go back to his prison cell every day. Eventually Steve is proven to be not guilty, but Myers leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Steve actually participated in the crime, leaving the reader to wonder about his innocence.
Themes: One of the largest themes in this novel is that of humanity. This theme follows Steve throughout the novel, starting from the beginning when he tells us that the lady prosecutor referred to him as a “monster”. This sticks with Steve and causes him to constantly question his worth as a human being and if, in fact, he is actually a monster. It gets harder and harder for him to see himself as human however, as he is acutely aware of how others, especially the jury, see him and judge him as a guilty killer despite having to be impartial. The guards also treat him as if he is already a criminal; even going so far as to take bets on how his trial will go.
Another leading theme in the novel is that of introspection, in which we get the best glimpses in Steve’s journals. Here the theme of humanity is linked with his intense introspections as he questions why he is in jail, what he has done, if he is innocent or not, how will his life change, and why does he have to be so afraid all the time. These glimpses of his journals provide the readers with deeper background knowledge into the character that is Steve.
Connections: This would be a great book to teach in a class in my opinion. It would allow students to get a realistic glimpse into the world of the United States judicial system for one and to help students understand that despite what they might have been told throughout life, the court system is hardly fair and impartial in its workings. Another good use in the classroom for this novel would be to help educate students about what life is and could be in prison, which could lead to a unit based around prison novels (which I love). The novel is also an amazing representation of the use of multigenre writing styles, as it incorporates journals, movie scripts, and pictures that all tie together to further the plot, all of which would be great to use if teaching a writing class about different styles of writing.
Reactions: I really liked this book, but it was just too short for me to absolutely fall in love with it. I really wanted more, especially in regards to Steve’s journal entries which I loved more than anything, despite how dark and dreary they were. I felt that, in these moments, I as a reader was truly given a glimpse into Steve’s life and the brutal trials which he was going through. Sure I thought the movie scripts of the trial were intriguing to say the least, and I liked the little details that Steve showed us (like the jury woman looking away from him in distaste when he gave her a little smile). The script for me however, just couldn’t compare to the stark and dangerous details that Steve revealed in his journal. My favorite part of those by far was when he wrote about how he now understands why they take away your belt and shoelaces when you enter prison. It’s harsh and real details like these that really made me like the novel, and I just wanted more of them.
Reception: This time I decided to look at two contrasting views on the novel as to get a semi-rounded opinion of the novel. On the website Amazon.com many books have a “most helpful favorable review” and a “most helpful critical review”. The following are the two accounts.
“I found the telling of the story to be riveting and I feel it would provide terrific discussion in a classroom, perhaps 9th grade. Not only must we judge Steven’s guilt, we also judge others involved and learn about the justice system in all its glory. By the time the novel ends, we feel as if we’ve been with Steven the whole time, and know we would never want to experience these events. It makes us consider peer pressure, the choices we make, the integrity of people, and different degrees of guilt. I enjoyed MONSTER very much and highly recommend it for personal use or with a class.”
“After reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers I honestly can say that I felt the book was mediocre. Myers had a terrifyingly intense plot but not a lot to follow it. The pace of the book dragged slowly with low suspense. Myers definitely has an artistic mind to write as Steve and in the format of a screenplay. But, I felt as if Myers held back or locked away a piece of his story that could’ve added so much to it. He should’ve added more character development to main characters such as O’Brien, King, and even Steve.”