Walter Dean Myers. Monster. New York: Amistad and HarperTeen, 1999.
Genre: Trial Fiction, Young Adult Fiction.
Audience: Middle school and up.
Read Aloud: youtube
Summary: This book is about a young Black man, Steve Harmon, who is on trial for his involvement in a robbery that lead to the death of the store clerk. Steve is facing felony murder charges and could spend 25 to life in prison. Steve is afraid of prison and constantly is in fear of the other inmates. He goes through his trial doubtful that he is going to be found not guilty because of all the racism that can be seen in the court system. Eventually Steve is found not guilty, and he is able to live a free life.
Themes: A theme from this book is humanity. Steve is constantly thinking about how the prosecutor called him a monster. He does not think what he did was enough to be called that, and he thinks to himself that maybe he actually is a monster. This theme can also be seen in the prison scenes because the prisoners are treated less than human. The guards do not care about the well-being of the prisoners, as we can see in the parts where there is violence and they do little to keep the inmates safe.
Another theme in this book is racism in the judicial system. We see how the guards are betting on what sentences the men on trial will receive. We also see this theme in the jury. Some of the jury members look away from Steve because they are afraid of him. Others look bored while the trial is going on, showing that they have already decided that the men are guilty.
Connections: This would be a good book to teach in the classroom because it teaches the youth about what life is like in prison. By seeing how scary jail is from the viewpoint of a young man, students can tell that it is a place they do not want to be. I seriously doubt any student would want to be involved in a crime after reading this book because it shows them that no matter how little your part in a crime is, it could still go terribly wrong and you still have to pay the consequences for it.
I have read that some schools have banned this book because of the violence in it. I do not think it is that violent at all. Sure there are some parts where the jury is looking at pictures of the dead clerk, but the body is not described in a lot of detail that would make students cringe. And the violence is the whole reason that this book should influence readers to stay away from crime. Because no matter how little the crime is, there is always a possibility that it will end up violent.
Reactions: I really enjoyed this book. It is fast paced and the multi-genre works great for it. We get to see who Steve is through his notebook entries and movie flashbacks to his youth. I like how the court scenes are done as a movie too. Because it is like reading a movie script, it sort of feels like reading what the stenographer would be typing. This allows readers to feel like they are reading a trial and they get to decide for themselves if he is a monster or not. Great book.
Reception: One review I read for Monster did not like the book. She claims that it is too nuanced for the young adult audience it is aimed for. She says that it goes from all emotion (when Steve is writing in his notebook) to no emotion (when he is writing the screenplay) and the young adults cannot keep up.
I know I cannot say what I would have thought about this book if I read it 9 years ago, but I believe I would have liked it. In the same review, the reviewer talks about how a 14 yr old read it and did not like it, and that a friend of her daughters read it but did not even finish it. I do not know how you could start reading this book and not continue to finish it to find out what the verdict is, but apparently some students do not care.
Overall: I would still teach this book in a classroom if I could. It is a good example of multi-genre writing, and students can easily see themselves as the scared Steve Harmon if they were ever locked up in prison. It is also a quick and easy read that I am sure some reluctant readers will enjoy diving into.