Sunday, June 24, 2007

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Myers, Walter Dean. Ill. by Christopher Myers (1999). Monster. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0060280778.

Monster is a script. A screenplay written by Steve Harmon, a high-school aged, amateur film maker who is in jail accused of murder. The story switches back and forth between the details of Steve’s present incarceration, flashbacks of the past and finally the trial where he will be judged and possibly sentenced. Included are tidbits of Steve’s first-hand accounts (from his diary?) of the effects jail is having on him.

Throughout the book, as we get to know Steve intimately, we are unsure as to his guilt or innocence. It is through testimony of the various witnesses as well as conversations between Steve and his lawyer that we are allowed to piece together the elements of the events that got Steve where he is: Essentially, Steve was friends—for whatever reasons—with the two actual suspects (King and Bobo) who went into a drugstore with the intention of robbing it, but the “getover” turned foul and Mr. Nesbitt, the owner, pulled a gun in self-defense. There was a scuffle and according to Bobo, the gun ended up in King’s hand. After the gun went off, the two young men grabbed the cash from the register and a few cartons of cigarettes (which Bobo later sold—to an undercover cop and ended up in jail).

So, what does being friends with these characters have to do with Steve Harmon? Well, they allege the Steve was a lookout for them. That his part was to walk into the store to see if there were any police officers and to give King and Bobo a signal. Does he do this? We may never know for sure. At times, Steve alludes to having been in the store, “for some mints,” but in the end, when on the stand, he testifies that he was not in the store that day. What we are confident of, as the reader, is that Steve didn’t mean to be involved.

In the end, he is declared NOT GUILTY (King is sentenced to 25 to life and Bobo goes to jail for some unrelated crime—not having had anything to do with the actual shooting). But, even though the jury sided with him, Steve feels that his relationship with his parents and with the world in general have been somehow tainted. That just by the fact that he was accused of a crime—that his parents wonder why he would even be friends with King and Bobo, on any level—that he is not the person they thought he was. Even his lawyer, who most would think would be jubilant upon hearing the verdict, did not join in Steve’s celebration, but rather turned away from his proffered sign of victory. He wonders what they think of him and if they think that he is, in fact, a monster.

Content-wise, this book is difficult to read. It’s difficult to relate to a protagonist who sits in jail and does not strongly assert his innocence. Sure, he tells us over and over how much he wants to get out of jail and that he’s afraid of the events he hears and sees happening around him, but he never really tries to convince us he is not guilty of the charges against him.

However, on the other hand, the charges against him aren’t one-dimensional. He is charged with murder not because he held a gun in his hand but because he is alleged to have been the lookout. But in reality, in the minds of his parents, lawyer and possibly the jury, he is charged with being associated with the kind of people who might commit such a crime.

And that brings us to the question Steve thinks his father asks himself: Why WAS he friends, or even loose acquaintances with King and Bobo? He is a smart kid. His vocabulary in his diary and in the actual screenplay itself (which we know from the beginning is supposed to be written by him) is eloquent enough. His film club sponsor/teacher even testifies to his character on the stand. Why would a kid who has so much going for him want to hang out with “hoods?” OR is it those elements themselves that pushed Steve to want to be around tougher kids? To prove that he wasn’t soft? To keep from being victimized? This theory illustrates an interesting parallel to how he feels in jail. How he knows he’s not supposed to show any weakness in the jail because it will get him beat up or sexually abused. How he’s not even allowed to smile at the inmate who dishes him up a hefty helping of food for fear that just that little smile will imply something else.

In the way of cultural markings, there is very little in Steve’s own words that implies he’s African-American. He doesn’t use dialect in his diary writings, nor in his screenplay. He is referred to as black by witnesses, but other than that, he could be of any race. However, there are dialectal cues in the quotes of several other people which imply that the other characters are African-American and that the events transpired in a predominantly African-American neighborhood:

Steve remembers overhearing two women talking about the crime:

Woman 1: Miss Trevor say he dead. They had 2 ambulances.
Woman 2: Two people got shot?
Woman 1: I don’t think 2 people got shot, but 2 ambulances came. One from Harlem Hospital.
Woman 2: It’s probably those crack people. They say they’ll do anything for that stuff.
Woman 1: Was he married? I didn’t see no woman working in the store.
Woman 2: That young Spanish boy? I don’t think he married.
Woman 1: No, girl, he ain’t the owner. The old man owned that place. I think he from St. Kitts. (pp. 118-119)

The expressions “he dead” and “I don’t think he married” and “I think he from St. Kitts” in which the stative verb is dropped is a typical element of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). If the reference to Harlem Hospital (Harlem being well-known as a predominantly African-American community) didn’t give away the races of these women, the dropping of the stative verb by both women in at least one instance each is indicative of their culture.

Also, during his testimony, we see a MULTITUDE of verbal cues from Bobo to show that he is speaking in AAVE:

Bobo: Man, this lame-looking brother with an attaché case come up to me and said he wanted to cop some rocks. I was so knocked out by this bourgie dude asking for crack that I slept the real deal. I laid the rocks on him and he slapped the cuffs on me. Cops don’t usually show lame. That was definitely not correct. (p.184)

Unlike the case of the two women, who used a grammatical cue to show their AAVE dialect, it’s Bobo’s actual vocabulary that gives it away with expressions like “lame-looking brother,” “cop some rocks,” “bourgie,” “slept the real deal,” “laid the rocks on him,” etc.

That is not to say that Bobo is definitely African-American just because he uses the vernacular—anyone growing up in a predominantly urban (and especially drug-infested) neighborhood might have the tendency to use such slang (as in the case of Osvaldo Cruz, another witness), however, Bobo is specifically referred to as black.

These varied cues are probably used to show the variety of characters. Walter Dean Myers might have a dual purpose in mind. The first, to enhance authenticity by showing accurate cues to which his African-American and/OR urban audience might relate and the second to be to illustrate that not all people of one race are the same. A variance of characters, if you will. Steve is smart and on the path to greatness (perhaps characteristics that are considered weak or, dare it be said, “white” in his community) and maybe feels a pressure to appear more tough or street-wise for whatever reason. King is a crank addict, looking to strike a deal but in the end resolved to his punishment. Bobo is reckless and unpredictable, and though street-smart, doesn’t seem highly educated (judging by his language which, if he were educated, he would know not to use in a courtroom setting). Steve’s parents are both caring and emotional—not the stereotypical urban, African-American parents who are often portrayed as being overly stern and harsh.

As in content, the format of the book—the mixed media of the screenplay and the diary entries, while keeping us on our toes, is difficult to read. However, I’d argue that anyone who does read it will find the work worth the effort.

Since I am not African-American and am not very experienced with the harsh realities of urban life, I am not suitably equipped to judge the authenticity or accuracy of the characters or events. If, however, they ARE accurate, this book would make a great portal into discussions on a myriad of topics: false charges, snap decisions which change our lives, drugs, urban life and various aspects of unspoken prejudices.

Reviews (per

Myers combines an innovative format, complex moral issues, and an intriguingly sympathetic but flawed protagonist in this cautionary tale of a 16-year-old on trial for felony murder...The film script contains minimal jargon, explaining camera angles (CU, POV, etc.) when each term first appears. Myers' son Christopher provides the black-and-white photos, often cropped and digitally altered, that complement the text. Script and journal together create a fascinating portrait of a terrified young man wrestling with his conscience. The tense drama of the courtroom scenes will enthrall readers, but it is the thorny moral questions raised in Steve's journal that will endure in readers' memories. Although descriptions of the robbery and prison life are realistic and not overly graphic, the subject matter is more appropriate for high-school-age than younger readers.

School Library Journal:
Grade 7 Up-[Steve's]striking scene-by-scene narrative of how his life has dramatically changed is riveting. Interspersed within the script are diary entries in which the teen vividly describes the nightmarish conditions of his confinement. Myers expertly presents the many facets of his protagonist's character and readers will find themselves feeling both sympathy and repugnance for him. Steve searches deep within his soul to prove to himself that he is not the "monster" the prosecutor presented him as to the jury. Ultimately, he reconnects with his humanity and regains a moral awareness that he had lost. Christopher Myers's superfluous black-and-white drawings are less successful. Their grainy, unfocused look complements the cinematic quality of the text, but they do little to enhance the story. Monster will challenge readers with difficult questions, to which there are no definitive answers. In some respects, the novel is reminiscent of Virginia Walter's Making Up Megaboy (DK Ink, 1998), another book enriched by its ambiguity. Like it, Monster lends itself well to classroom or group discussion. It's an emotionally charged story that readers will find compelling and disturbing.

...Myers leaves it up to readers to decide for themselves on his protagonist's guilt or innocence. The format of this taut and moving drama forcefully regulates the pacing; breathless, edge-of-the-seat courtroom scenes written entirely in dialogue alternate with thoughtful, introspective journal entries that offer a sense of Steve's terror and confusion, and that deftly demonstrate Myers's point: the road from innocence to trouble is comprised of small, almost invisible steps, each involving an experience in which a ``positive moral decision'' was not made. (illustrations, not seen) (Fiction. 12-14)

Awards for Monster:
2000 Michael Printz Award Winner
Coretta Scott King Honor Book

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