Walter Dean Myers

Monster is the journal of Steve Harmon, a 16-year-old boy facing the death penalty after the murder and robbery of a convenience store owner. He's accused of casing the store before the robbery—walking in, looking for cops, walking out again and signalling to the others that the coast was clear—and his alleged involvement, argues the prosecution, means that he's just as guilty as the man who pulled the trigger.


You think we're going to win?

O'BRIEN (seriously)

It probably depends on what you mean by "win."

The first time I read Monster, it didn't do a whole lot for me. The format—while there are a few first-person journal entries, Steve, an aspiring filmmaker, chronicles the majority of his experience as a screenplay—creates a lot of distance between the reader and the story, and my lack of emotional involvement made it a somewhat cold read.

That was the first time. Since then, I've read it four, five, six times. And with every read, I've discovered more to appreciate: how well crafted it is, how much emotion and thought is there under the seemingly stiff surface, how much it resonates fifteen years after it was first published.

The format isn't a gimmick. Film is an interest of Steve's, yes, and it's a way for him to emotionally detach from his situation—hence the feeling of emotional distance—but it also allows for parallels between the justice system and film itself: that regardless of what jurists in either setting say during selection or even believe of themselves, they bring their own set of preconceived notions, prejudices, and assumptions with them.


It could be going better.


What's wrong?


Well, frankly, nothing it happening that speaks to your being innocent. Half of those jurors, no matter what they said when we questioned them when we picked the jury, believed that you were guilty the moment they laid eyes on you. You're young, you're Black, and you're on trial. What else do they need to know?

The format highlights Steve's isolation in court—he's an object and observer, the subject rather than an actor—and it makes the growing estrangement between him and his father all the more apparent. He transcribes conversations between the judge, officers, and other employees of the court that make it very clear that this case is just another case for them—it's literally life-or-death for Steve, but it's day-in-day-out for them. Ditto the stage directions, which, unlike most depictions on television and in movies, show the jurors looking bored at moments—again, it's life-and-death for Steve, but it's just a task to be got through for the jurors.

Steve, let me tell you what my job is here. My job is to make sure the law works for you as well as against you, and to make you a human being in the eyes of the jury.

Even when the verdict comes down—fifteen-year-old SPOILER, they find him not guilty—there's a clear feeling that this accusation will follow him. His lawyer thinks he got away with something, and he's pretty sure that his father thinks he might have done it, too. He's right to be concerned that people will look at him differently, see him differently, change their expectations about his future.  

And then, there's the fact that Steve never really says whether or not he's guilty of what they say he is. There's a lot along the lines of I didn't kill anyone Going into a store and walking around isn't a crime How can this be happening? but there's never a concrete answer to that. It's left to the reader to make a determination about that, and for that matter, it's left to the reader to think about whether or not that action DOES constitute murder. 

Phew. And THIS, my friends, is why giving stories second chances can be so eye-opening, rewarding, and important.