Book: Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999.
Genre: Realistic Young Adult Fiction.
Audience: This book is intended for an audience of grades 8-12.
Summary: Monster is about 16 year old Steve Harmon who is on trial for felony murder. Written as a movie script (with embedded journal entries), Myers’ novel gives the reader a look at the entire trial through Steve’s eyes, and also how he believes everyone else views him. While it does not fully admit whether Steve is guilty or innocent, readers will be able to make up their own mind by the end. The story also gives readers an idea of what it is like to be a youth behind bars and have their life hanging in the balance, unsure of when (if ever) they will walk the streets again.
Themes: An important theme in Monster is the concept of identity. The young protagonist constantly questions whether or not he is a “Monster” as he was called by the prosecution even though he claims he had not done anything wrong. While we can not be sure if Steve is guilty, he can not seem to make up his own mind about the things he has done.
Another important theme in Monster is peer pressure. This is important because it is prominent throughout the book: Steve hangs with the guys to be “cool” like them and Cruz claims to have participated in the crime due to fear. Most of the characters (especially the younger ones) say they were acting in response to peer pressure, as most of the young people in society do. This book shows students how very serious consequences may arise from trying to keep up with the “in- crowd”.
Race is another prominent theme in Myers’ novel. The diction and details of setting constantly remind the reader that they are in an ethnic area. Steve’s account of the trial also lets readers know how Black youth are treated in the judicial system; if you are Black and on trial, then you are most likely guilty. The people in the courtroom, Blacks and Whites alike, seem to look at him with fear in their eyes as if they have witnessed him commit a gruesome crime.
One of the other important concepts that I found was familial support. One of the very few personal things we learn about Steve is that he has a close relationship with his little brother. While he is in jail, he sometimes thinks about his brother and the things he would say to him if he could see him. In addition to that, his parents also come to visit him in jail and offer some words of encouragement for young Steve as he waits on his trial to continue. I believe this is important because it shows family ties in a not so ideal setting that most children are not familiar with; it humanizes people of a lower socioeconomic status whom many people believe are wild and barbaric simply because they are poor.
Connections: Considering the novel is written in different formats, it would be very beneficial to use the text as an example of a longer multi-genre piece. One of the reasons this is important in the class is because it shows students how different pieces written in the same voice still have a different sound. Steve’s voice is consistent, yet, the ways in which we receive his story either bring us closer to him (journals) or actually establish distance (movie script). Because most students doubt their own abilities when given an assignment, it would be helpful for them to see how an established author uses the various techniques to make a piece successful.
Reactions: This is my second time reading the book and while I found it to be a great read as a middle school student, I was not exactly thrilled this time around. While the details were good and the characters were realistic, the clinical “coldness” of the script did not allow me to connect with the protagonist, therefore, I considered the read to be unsuccessful. I feel as if Myers intended for it to be written that way, but as a college student from a large city’s suburbs, I crave for something more than a “tale from the hood”. However, I do believe this book would be able to reach a younger audience, especially if the school is located in the inner city.
Reception: On a site called “The Open Critic”, eighth grader, Mark I, described Monster as a good book that would appeal to “Law and Order” fans. While he thought the book was well written, he could only give it 4.5 stars out of 5 because some parts were a bit confusing. Read the full review here.
Debbie Carton of Book list online says, “Myers combines an innovative format, complex moral issues, and an intriguingly sympathetic but flawed protagonist in this cautionary tale of a 16-year-old on trial for felony murder”. She also mentions how the subject matter will “enthrall” readers because it is so unconventional. While she admits that violence is not directly stated in the text, she believes the material is better suited for high school students.