Monster Review

Monster cover art

Monster cover art

Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. New York: Harper Teen. 1999.

281 Pages

Q4 – P4 – J – S

 Grades 7-12

 

Monster thrusts the reader into the high stakes action of the story in the first pages: Steve Harmon is black, in prison while he awaits his murder trail, and to cope with the surreal horrific scenes that have become his life he has decided to write down everything that happens in the form of a screen play. The result is a fast pace but introspective courtroom drama that reads like an episode of Law & Order. If convicted Steve could spend the rest of his life prison, a place of extreme violence, or even receive the death penalty. These stakes are particularly high as Steve is only sixteen.

Teens will quickly see the unfairness and flaws in the case against Steve. The prosecutor is wrong; Steve isn’t a monster and he is clearly different from the real criminals he meets in prison and who testify about the crime in court to cut deals on their own sentences. He has been accused of being the look out in the robbing of a convenience store, an accomplice to three other men (James King, Bobo, and Osvaldo) but the evidence is shaky: Steve was allegedly supposed to signal that the store was all clear and ready to be ambushed by his 2 friends who were waiting outside. None of them had a gun but the store owner did and he pulled it out to defend himself during the robbery, only to lose control of the weapon, get shot, and killed by Bobo or King. The prosecutor charges that, “They are all equally guilty. The one who grabbed the cigarettes, the one who wrestled for the gun, the one who checked to see if the coast was clear.” But this doesn’t seem fair. Even if Steve was the look out, how could he be responsible for Bobo or King’s decision to shoot the store owner? And how can the jury chose to believe testimony from witnesses who are criminals themselves and stand to profit from narking on someone else. They are motivated to lie and send someone else to prison so they can shorten their own sentences and cut their own deals. The book raises serious questions about the criminal justice system and teens will enjoy grappling with the flaws of the system in the pursuit of justice.

But while the reader roots for Steve’s acquittal and sees him as more human than monster, his actual role in the crime and plea of innocence are more ambiguous. The reader must make judgements of Steve’s role in the crime and even in the end, when Steven is found innocent by the jury, Myers doesn’t leave the reader with a clear cut case of innocence and justice being served. Steve clearly had something to do with the crime. When his lawyer O’Brien, is examining him on the witness stand Steve denies being in the store that day but in his journal he says he was there, buying some mints and walking out. There are many ambiguous moments like this in the book and what does become clear is that Steve’s neighborhood was filled with bad people, criminals, and even though he wasn’t like them, he made the mistake of wanting to be. Even if it was just for the tiny moment it took to make one decision to walk out of a convenience store, Steve fell in with the wrong crowd and as a consequence he was pulled into a string of events that he had no control over. In this way the story acts as a cautionary tale of how one bad decision can have horrible unintended consequences. But Steve gets his life back and he deserves a second chance which teens will be satisfied with.
The book also includes a nice set of extras (reader guide, questions for the author, author bio and motivation, tips for aspiring writers, etc.), which lend the book to classroom discussion and make it a good choice for book groups. Everyone is bound to have an opinion on Steve’s situation, and a case for his guilt or innocence. The cover shows Steve’s mug shot: A young black man against a orange background with the word “Monster” written above it. Again, the young boy in the picture doesn’t look like a monster, drawing in readers who are curious to find out what the boy on the cover has done to be labeled so.

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