Monster by Walter Dean Myers.
HarperCollins Children’s Books, New York, 1999.
Teen fictional chapter book/screenplay, 281 pages.
Coretta Scott King Award Winner, Michael L. Prinz Award, National Book Award and more
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 5.0 points).
Monster is a complicated novel of a story-within-a-story. At first glance it is the straightforward tale of a boy who is accused of assisting in a murder during a robbery-gone-wrong, mostly expressed through his recreation of the trial as a screenplay and his diary notes from prison. But it is also the story of a criminal justice system where the mostly white cast assumes all the power over the mostly black “monsters.” Then there are also flashbacks that add more information about Steve Harmon and the other characters which call into question his real role in the murder. Meanwhile, we are seeing all of this through the lens of one desperate young boy – what is the truth?
Honestly, for a book to get this many awards and never attract my attention is very unusual. This book also has never been checked out of the school library I got it from. But opening the book, I’m not surprised. The format is challenging, the language certainly above the level indicated in many places, and the content seems aimed more at high school students in terms of the complexity of thought required to process the novel.
I definitely think this would make for an intriguing class discussion, and can see why this book is required reading in many places. However, I am a little curious about the intended audience for the novel. Many students would really need the guidance of an experienced teacher to get the full benefit from this book.
I’m so sad that this book, published in 1999, is still incredibly relevant to our word today, and probably will be for many more years.
There are a lot of characters, some of whom are main characters and some of whom come and go quickly as they testify or are seen in a flashback. I’ve seen that there is now a graphic novel edition and wonder if I might like that one more – the visuals might make the diary/screenplay transitions smoother and the recurring characters easier to identify.
There were in fact visuals in this, in that the diary entries are in a different font from the film scripts and eventually there are pictures, staccato images that seem to be footage from a surveillance camera. It does break up the story, and I think that it would involve teen readers, but I still was confused by the jumping around in time and the unusual formatting. There is not much characterization of all the secondary characters, since they are mainly seen through Steve’s point of view.
I certainly benefited from reading this. It is a thought-provoking work, and one that will open your eyes to the criminal justice system as you try to work out the truth of what has occurred and who is guilty (few people are in their own minds). However, I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it. Over the course of many months (started in 2016), I forced myself to read this from cover to cover, but doubt that I would have stuck with it if not for this blog.
The format grated on me and the large cast of characters confused me. However, you may find this book enlightening, as there were moments of insight and concise visuals of challenging topics. Difficult as it was to read, if I was in a middle or high school English classroom, this would definitely be on my roster of class discussion novels.
During my agonizing reading (and many renewals) of this book, I eventually purchased the graphic novel edition, which I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing now that I’ve finally finished the novel. It doesn’t appear that anyone’s tried to turn this into a film yet, and I’m surprised given the continuing topicality of this issue and the criminalization of black boys. I think the graphic novel format may convey this particular story better.