kind of very embarrassed to say that I had not read the award-winning Monster (Harper Collins) written by Walter Dean Myers (1999) and illustrated by his son Christopher Myers until today. But one of my student teachers is reading this book with her ninth graders this semester, so I wanted to read it. And so I did – in just about one sitting!
Readers are introduced to Steve Harmon, a young African-American boy who is on trial for the murder of a convenience store owner. Steve tells his story in the form of notes to himself and recounts the events of the trial in the form of a film script.
So this book is just about as riveting of a young adult book as I have read. The sheer pace of this book is exhilarating, and I was totally wrapped up in Steve’s story. The internal monologue that comes through in his notes are powerful and really challenge you to think about his role in the murder. I felt sympathy/anger/confusion all at the same time. Monster raises a lot of questions about morality and what is right. Steve asks What was I doing? What was I thinking? (Meyers, 1999, pp. 220-221). He writes about other prisoners, too: “He [another inmate] was trying to convince himself that he wasn’t guilty” (p. 143). And Meyers leaves what exactly Steve is convincing himself of a bit vague – which is indicative of the rawness of the book. You’re not sure if Steve really is a monster or is just acquiescing to others’ images of him. You’re also not even sure exactly what Steve’s parents or lawyer really think of him.
There is a lot one can discuss in terms of race here. The story is set in New York City. One of the witnesses does not want to testify against African American boys. And Steve’s feather dreams of him attending Morehouse. The violence of Steve’s community is rampant: A neighborhood resident responds to the newscaster who is covering the murder: “I ain’t shocked. People getting killed and everything and it ain’t right but I ain’t shocked none” (Meyers, 1999, p. 121). And a fellow inmate comments that the courts want to lock up someone for the crime. Whether or not Steve is a victim of his community is something worth discussing.
I liked the multi-modal aspects in the book. The story just would have not been the same in straight novel form. I know my student teacher is going to discuss the reliability of the narrator with her students, and I think there is so much one can think about in relation to this. The idea of truth is central to the book, and I found myself asking Whose truth am I receiving here? Steve and his fellow inmates discuss what truth is. Steve says, “Truth is truth. It’s what you know to be right.” Another inmate responds, “Nah! Truth is something you gave up when you were other there on the street. Now you talking survival. You talking about another chance to breathe some air 5 other guys ain’t breathing” (Meyers, 1999, pp. 221-222). Powerful!
Regardless of its final verdict, Monster is a powerful story about American communities, about the American justice system, and about a young man’s tragic story. I cannot wait to see how my student teacher’s ninth grade students engage with this awesomely captivating book.
Tell me what you think of Monster in the comments below!