Myers, Walter Dean. 1999. Monster. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0064407314
This book tells the story of 16 year old Steve Harmon and his experience on trial for murder. Called a monster by the prosecutor, Steve and another defendant James King are on trial for the death of a drugstore owner who was killed during a robbery. The plot focuses on Steve’s feelings about being in jail and on trial, incorporating his interest in film making by telling his story through a film script. As the trial goes on, the story is told from both the defense and prosecution sides of the story, as well as through flashbacks that introduce Steve’s family, friends, and the neighborhood into the story. Ultimately, the jury finds Steve not guilty. However, the details that are presented through the trial and in Steve’s notes in the journal leave the reader to make up his/her own mind about what really happened that day in the drugstore.
Written in a mix of genres including a film script and a journal, the book follows the realistic character of Steve Harmon. With his poignant journal entries, the reader gets a deeper glimpse at the inner conflict and confusion faced by an adolescent thrust into adult situations. His questioning of himself and his actions, along with his shock and horror at the events and sounds that occur in prison make the reader recognize the reality that this character is facing.
As the details of the robbery in the drugstore emerge during the novel, the plot becomes even more believable and realistic. The inner workings of the justice system – from police questioning to prison visits – move the plot along as we are given bits and pieces of the crime and the defendant’s current status through courtroom scenes and flashbacks. While the plot covers a great deal of information, the manner in which we learn these details allows us to process it and connect with the characters on a deeper, more real level.
The setting in this novel makes it realistic and unique, as it takes place in various locations. From flashbacks in the neighborhood to the courtroom and the prison, the details in each setting transport the reader to that place. The journal notes Steve makes from prison are especially touching, as we recognize this as a setting that he no longer wants to be in.
More than anything, this novel illuminates the theme of guilt versus innocence and how one’s actions can result in consequences that are often unexpected. Steve’s journey through the criminal justice system brings the reader into a situation that may be unfamiliar to him/her. However, upon reading this book, it is a situation that they will likely never forget. It is through our journey with Steve that we recognize our own fears of the places that we hope to never visit.
Walter Dean Myers’s style stands out above many others because of his multigenre approach to this novel. With handwritten font for Steve’s journal entries and typewritten font for the film script that covers the trial, the reader is drawn into the uniqueness of the text and the manner in which this approach conveys such details and emotion. His mix of a conversational tone with Steve’s thoughts and the formal tone of the defense and prosecution arguments create an interesting style. Ultimately, it is through the meshing of these two styles that the reader has to decide Steve’s guilt or innocence for him or herself.
School Library Journal – “Many elements of this story are familiar, but Myers keeps it fresh and alive by telling it from an unusual perspective…It’s an emotionally charged story that readers will find compelling and disturbing.”
Booklist – “The tense drama of the courtroom scenes will enthrall readers, but it is the thorny moral questions raised in Steve’s journal that will endure in readers’ memories.”
Kirkus – “The format of this taut and moving drama forcefully regulates the pacing…”
AudioFile – “The youth and innocence of Jeron Alston’s voice, as Steve, summons the listener into his limited reality and serves as a counterpoint to the authenticity of the courtroom drama, presented through the voices of the prosecutor, the D.A., the defendants, and the witnesses.”
I love this book not only for its unique format, but also for the way in which it draws the reader into the story by compiling different perspectives on Steve and his life as told perceived by a variety of people. I especially enjoyed the audiobook because the different voices brought the text to life and allowed me to visualize the situation even more clearly, with suspense and action that is expected of a book set during a murder trial.
· Keep a reader’s journal as you read the book. Gather text evidence in two columns: Guilty and Not Guilty. After finishing the book, decide whether you think the evidence shows that Steve was really guilty or not guilty.
· Try filming a part of the film script that Steve writes while on trial.
· Write your definition of ‘justice.’ After reading the book, do you think that definition fits with Steve’s case and the verdict given by the jury?
Other Books by Walter Dean Myers
Bad Boy: A Memoir
Other Books about Crime and Juvenile Justice
Nothing to Lose by Alex Flinn
The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier
Degrees of Guilt series