"I Just Desperately Wish This Was Only A Movie." - Steve "Monster" Harmon

Walter Dean Myers's MONSTER Publised in New York, NY: HarperCollins Children's Books, 1999.

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Monster is a very thought-provoking, powerful novel/screenplay/story. It really gets you thinking about prejudice towards minorities and young people in America, about our legal system, poverty, crime, our jails/prisons, and what it's like to live in a neighborhood like that of the main character, Steven. This story is about a young African American teenager on trial in New York City for his alleged part in the homicide of a convenience store owner during a robbery. Steven, the character of concern for the reader, is being held in jail while he is being tried in court.

The majority of the story takes the form of Steven's screenplay, although there are a few sections here and there that take the form his diary as he's in jail. While the screenplay is written in the third person, the events are obviously told from Steven's own perspective, which gives the reader a very intimate and powerful, though slightly ambiguous as to its accuracy, perspective and interpretation of the events. And that is where the real power of this comes from. You have this very moving account of this boy’s extremely difficult and trying time in his life, but you're never sure if you should fully believe him. You want to, but there's always this doubt in the back of your head, that is never really resolved. Is Steven innocent, or is he guilty? What both Steven and the readers of Monster must realize is that being “not guilty” can mean different things from a legal and moral perspective. That sort of duplicity is cleverly sewn into the fabric of a narrative that takes two forms; Steven’s highly personal descriptions in his diary, and his more distanced account of the events in his screenplay. As a result of the novel's unique form, the text can leap off the page to strike a chord in the reader in a way that more traditionally structured texts fail to acheive. At times, Monster's haunting scribble belies the unreliability of its narrator, and further challenges the reader to remain unbiased in their understanding of Steven's narrative.

Although you find out what the jury decides at the end of the story, you're still left wondering what the real truth is. Is this the best young adult novel in the world? Not necessarily. But it certainly is a good one, and its real value is that there is a lot you can do with this book in terms of teaching. The themes running throughout Monster seem designed for those teachers who want to sharpen their students’ conceptions of the world on the stone of critical pedagogy. For example, what does Steven’s quandary say about the nature of our justice system? Or, perhaps more importantly, what do your reactions to Steven’s presumed guilt/innocence tell you about your own perceptions of the world? There are all kinds of activities that this book facilitates really well (see below), and there are a lot of interesting literary aspects to this story that can be looked into such as the believability of narrators, and so on.

Recommendations for Teachers

A really interesting activity that could be incorporated into the teaching of this book would be to take a class of students to a day or two of an actual trial so that they can see and observe what goes on first hand. After the field trip has been completed you could have the students write a story (or screenplay, or journal, or whatever) about a person involved in the case (defendant, plaintiff, judge, lawyers, jury member, etc.) from that person's point of view about the trial, including their thoughts, feelings, etc. I think this could be a very interesting way to get students to think about point of view, characterization, and give them a little bit of knowledge about the way our judicial system works at the same time.
Along with that idea, the students could begin reading newspapers and periodicals that refer to recent or ongoing court cases and see if they can come with the same verdict as the jury when analyzing all of the information offered.
Adolescents today are faced with many new and challenging issues. Some of these issues are guns, drugs, fitting in, and violence. Reading Monster would hopefully give the reader a better notion of what happens when a person uses guns or drugs and the serious consequences of such actions. Many students don't take advice from teachers as seriously as they would from a friend or peer, but hearing about the consequences from Steve Harmon who might be much like themselves could give them insight.
For students to get a better understanding of the book itself, the teacher could ask the students to play out the roles of the people in the book. By doing this the students can really dive into the drama and the intensity of such a situation and almost put themselves in the place of Steve Harmon or any of the other roles. It would be important to really emphasize the seriousness of the situations that come from being involved in gangs or crime, and this is best portrayed through Steve Harmon's trial.
Bringing the issue of race is a great one because even at one point in the story, Harmon's lawyer Kathy O'Brien, told him, "You're young, you're Black, and you're on trial. What else do [the jurors] need to know?" Even as an active member in the judicial process, O'Brien understands the problem of racism and racial profiling when it comes to court cases. Making students aware of the prominent racism even in today's society is an important issue to address.

About Walter Dean Myersexternal image myers.gif

Walter Dean Myers was born on August 12, 1937 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. At the age of 2, his mother passed away while in labor, which resulted in him being adopted by a friend of his mother's named Florence Dean. Later in his life, he actually substituted his legal middle name of Milton to Dean.

The Dean family left Martinsburg and moved to Harlem which is located in the northern Manhattan area. During his school years there, fellow classmates made fun of him due to a problem with his speech. This lead to some retaliation getting him in trouble. Another we he combated this was by reading books. Teachers also encouraged him to write. However, even into his teens problems persisted. He felt that there was more to life, so his 17th birthday was his last day of school. Shortly there after, he enlisted in the Army and did a three year tour.

It wasn't till the 60's that he started getting acknowledged for his writing abilities. He did a lot of freelance writing for various magazines until he got his star light. It was in 1968 when he entered and won a competition put on by the Council on Interracial Books for Children for African-American writers for his idea which became a picture book titled Where Does the Day Go? From there on, he has had a snowball effect career writing 90 books, but publishing only 85.

It has been nearly 30 years since his first book was published and Myers has many awards to show for his hard work. His awards consist of five Coretta Scott King Awards, two Newbery Awards, the first American Library Association Michael L. Printz Award (which was for Monster), the Margaret A. Edwards Award, and many, many more. Perhaps even more flattering than those awards is that he was chosen to present the 2009 May Hill Arbuthonot Honor Lecture.

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

This is a great video interview with author Walter Dean Meyers. In it we gain insight into his childhood as well as how his writing process works. There is some background noise of crowds as it was taken at a book expo, but it is a great interview of the man behind Monster.

Additional Resources:
Here are some interesting sites that might be helpful in teaching/understanding this novel:
Teens Tried as Adults - This is an article from 2003 from USA TODAY that talks about teens that are being tried as adults but don't necessarly understand the judicial system.
Harlem Live - This is a site that is governed by the youth of New York. This also is an article from a youth perspective of teens tried as adults.
Screenwriting.info - This website gives a lot of information on the ins and outs of writing a screenplay, if you want to incorporate that activity into teaching this book.
USA Crime Info - This a Wikipedia page about crime statistics in the United States. Could offer material for interesting discussions, etc.
Harper Collins Teacher Guide - Just a few ideas of how to teach this story and some activities to do post-reading.
Wrongful Convictions - Though Steven is proven not guilty at the story's end, there is still a shadow of doubt cast over him as to whether or not he was connected to the robbery/murder. This website is about an ongoing documentary about those who are wrongfully accused and convicted in the United States judicial system.
Voices from Prison - Poetry, prose, and essays written by inmates.
Racial Profiling - How racial profiling and the justice system are related.
Addressing Gang Issues - Gives some facts and information on the problems caused by gangs in the community.
Adolescents and Teen Violence- Why is this Happening?- Covers many grounds dealing with teen violence.

-- Griffin Cobean
-- Brad Hendershot
-- Mike Wise
-- Eli Barsy
-- Eric Owen
See our review on Gary Paulson's Hatchet