Am I just a Monster?

Walter Dean Myers. Monster. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.

cover.jpgWalter Dean Myers presents a story from the perspective of Steve Harmon, a sixteen year old, African American teenager who brings a different perspective on life, and situations than does the majority of kids his age. The point of view from which Steve tells the story of the murder trial that he must face, is written in a very unique manner. He writes the entire story as if it were a screenplay, as he also describes how each scene transition would appear. Ultimately it is Steve's perspective of a screenplay that creates his own image of, a Monster.

Steve draws the audience's attention to specific characters when dialogue is not occurring. In this manner, Steve is able to show how he views each character and what character traits he observes from each of them. Consequently, his perception of each character creates the character's identity. Furthermore, Steve presents the reactions and movements of the characters including his own attorney, Miss O' Brien. He recalls the memorable conversations that affected him. After telling her that he is scared for the trial, she responds to him saying, "Good; you should be" (Myers 15). This demonstrates her lack of faith in Steve and indirectly shows a prejudice that she may have because he is not only African-American, but a young male as well. Steve is also very observant as he describes the situation of the two of them getting ready for his interview on the stand. "SPLIT SCREEN: One side is O'Brien, pacing nervously. On the other side is Steve, sitting" (Myers 214). Since the beginning of the trial, it is clear that O'Brien is not secure in the case and possibly does not trust Steve. The fact that Steve notes her exact movements shows his ability to observe how nervous his own lawyer is about the trial, and is unsure of the outcome. For Steve to recognize these slightest movements in a specific character, demonstrates how he is affected by his lawyer's lack of faith in him. Ultimately Steve becomes frightened and looses faith in himself, as he writes in his personal journal, "My case fills me" and admits that "the movies that dance through my mind. I keep editing the movies, making the scenes right. Sharpening the dialogue" (Myers 271). Steve has consumed himself in his point of view of creating a screenplay from his own life situation, noting every slight action and reaction, and through this screenplay the audience can view is every thought which he pinpoints. He begins to allow other's prejudices of him, affect his own view himself.

The audience sees the affects of the screenplay on Steve's mental state when he writes in his journal. Most of these journal entries are reflections of the trial, his own concerns with the trial, and his thoughts on living in the jail. He describes this experience in the very beginning of the book as "It is about being alone when you are not really alone and about being scared all the time" (Myers 4). Right at the beginning he sets the seen for the eery environment in which he is living. It not only reflects his feelings about life in jail, but is a parallel to his feelings about the trial. He feels alone, separate, and different than others because he can reason other character's opinions of him. Steve begins to take on this stereotypical role that society has set for him. He feels "scared of being hit or raped. That being scared was a little ball at the pit of my stomach. Now that ball is growing when I think of how much time I could do" (Myers 139). Therefore, Steve describes how his psychological state becomes so bad, because his observations of others causes him to be physically affected by his fear.

Steve's testimony is yet, a scene that brings together his own point of view and his deteriorating mental state, and fear. Even though he told exactly what to say and how to respond by his lawyer; still, he is very nervous and self-conscious about his own alibi. His main responses to any questions on the stand results in him stating, "No, I did not" (Myers 223). He gives vague answers to the prosecutor with the fear of giving out too much information. Steve describes himself in his own screenplay after his time on the stand as "We see STEVE sit down, start to pick up a glass of water, and have to put it down because his hand is shaking so badly" (Myers 234). Here, he directly displays his feelings of anxiety and despair through his actions. This ultimately becomes a combination of his own point of view in his screenplay, and the view he himself is a 'Monster'.

Monster depicts Steve's own actions, reflections, and point of view which displays how the stereotypes society puts on an individual or group of people can affect and truly harm one's mental health. This topic is relatable to teenage and pre-teen students. There are several prejudices found in the story about the fact that Steve is believed to be guilty, due to a mixture of his age, gender, and race. This story could be very pertinent to use in a school that is located in a diverse community which includes African-Americans; however, can also be used in schools that do not, to give the students a different perspective on these prejudices. Furthermore, the book displays Steve's fears, mental instability and strong lack of confidence through his thought process and how he observes what he sees through his screenplay. Subsequently, their is a character in this book that can directly relate to adolescents through his voice, style of writing through out the book, and his reflections and internal battle that he faces.

Advice for Teachers

This book and the various themes that it presents can be taught in any school system but most definitely one of a more African American student body. The main character, Steve, is a 16 year old boy that is on trial. If done correctly, students can be a part of a massive discussion that could include themes and topics such as peer pressure, the judicial system, how to stay out of trouble, choosing the right friends, the idea of innocence and of being guilty, the idea of real friends, and many more. Some assignments that could get the students involved are:

  1. Discussion of the books major themes, which are: Peer pressure, acceptance, the judicial system, choosing friends, stereotypes, violence in neighborhoods, moral priorities (what is truly right or wrong according to the mind of the student). An in depth discussion would place the students in the forefront of what they truly believe and possibly some of their own experiences.
  2. Write a letter from the position of Steve, and have the students truly think about the implications that prison is having on his self-esteem, and how he feels about it affecting his family. Also, they can go into detail about the jail experience and all of the things that Steve hears and fears while he is in there.
  3. The students could collaborate to make a documentary of the book. This would be interesting, especially for whoever decides to play Steve, simply because of the wide-range of emotions that he displays throughout the novel. More so, students could perform this for other students and even parents that are a part of the school district.
  4. Students, especially in an ethically diverse school setting, could be able to view the distinct stereotypes that the medias and the society have towards African-American, namely portraying them as monsters. Students could be asked to research the various events where African Americans were portrayed immediately as monsters, no matter what the situation is. Students could also find ways to view the prison statistics to see how many of each individual race is behind bars, just to see if that fits any stereotypes that they may find. More, as a teacher, you can allow your students to debate what they would have done in the place of Steve's lawyer.
  5. Have them question why the lawyer saw such things in Steve to believe that he was actually a monster. For this they can look at pictures of him, his speech when talking to her, and his attitude portrayed throughout the story. Have them compare this to the attitudes of the more dangerous individuals in the book, and then ask them to contrast. This, hopefully, will allow them to see if the statistics hold up to the stereotypes.

This book is not a hard read, but should still be taken slowly, because some of the mentioned themes are a handful for students to discuss. More so, a teacher should take caution with some of the jail scenes, because there is implied violence and sexual assault while Steve tries to sleep. There isn’t too much explicit language in the book, but the characters do use poor English, which may or may not be an issue. Teachers should also be aware of the fact that this book may be personal to some students, and that they should look out for certain signs, especially in the higher grade levels.

The Author of Monster, Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers
Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers was given away by his biological mother and raised by Herbert and Florence Dean. He was brought up in a community centered on Christianity and resisted it in his youth. Myers did poorly in high school which caused him to not graduate and lead to his joining the army at age seventeen. Myers was always good at writing, but didn't start writing as a career until later in his life.

He began writing about his teen years during which he had a hard time. Most of Myers' novels focus on hardships that most African Americans face as well as the tough events he experienced in his life. Some popular books by Myers include Monster, which he won the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Literature for Young Adults, Fallen Angles, which is about the Vietnam war, and Autobiography of My Dead Brother, which explains the difficulties experienced by urban youth.

Myers is the winner of many awards including the Jane Addams Children's Book Award, the Margaret E. Edwards Award, and the Coretta Scott King Award which he received five times. Myers has been a very successful writer and is incredibly passionate about both his writing and his life.

"I hope that the next book, story, or poem that I write will be worthy of the time the reader spends with it. If it is then my life is successful. If it's not, then I'll try again." - Walter Dean Myers

Are They Really Monsters?

This video explains the relationship between racism and incarceration. It discusses how
there is a disproportionately large number of African Americans incarcerated and why.

Additional Resources:

  • About the Author Learn more about Walter Dean Myers. See his biography, bibliography, reviews, and news on what he's currently up to.
  • Walter Dean Myers Learn about the authors accomplishments, awards, and reviews on his books.
  • Reviews On Monster Check out this page to learn more about Monster, see reviews and discussions on the book.
  • Civil Rights and Wrongs Racism among African Americans is still very prevelent in America. Click here to learn more.
  • Statistics Tons of facts and statistics on racism among African Americans in today's world.
  • American Civil Liberties Union Learn how individual's are fighting to put an end to racial profiling.
  • Crime and Race Click here to learn some facts and statistics about crime and race and whether or not they go hand in hand.
  • Video Check out this YouTube video to see how racism and incarceration are related.
  • Video on Racism To learn more about descrimination of African Americans today, watch this video.
  • Lesson Plans Here are some great lesson plans for teaching Monster to middle and high school students.

-- Devante Baldwin, Karlye Byrnes, Mariah Farkas, and Emily Mayer

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower
New Boy