There are three important locales in Monster. The most frightening is prison. From the start, Steve wants nothing more than to escape from the prison. Inmates are beaten up nightly, and men are raped even in Steve's own cell. He does what he can to avoid looking vulnerable, certain that he would be beaten or raped if he did, but he is acutely aware that he is the youngest-looking inmate. He even avoids smiling at those who smile at him, afraid that even a smile would invite the worst. Monster does an incredible job of conveying the misery and horror of imprisonment. No one, not the guards, not the other inmates, cares one whit about Steve's safety. As for his fate, the guards have a betting pool on how long a sentence he will receive. Everyone seems convinced of his guilt except Steve himself.
Another setting is the courtroom, a world unto itself in which reality is distorted, even lost altogether. In it, the tough-talking gang member Osvaldo is a shy, soft-spoken witness. Having already admitted his part in the robbery and murder, he plays on his age (only fourteen) and contrives to seem like a little boy. James King, Steve's co-defendant, appears to be handsome and dignified, even though he is a thug on the streets. The unreality of the courtroom contrasts not only with how people are perceived outside of it but also with Steve's prison. In the courtroom all is governed by procedure. Everyone has a place to sit or stand, and rituals must...
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That Monster is an unusual novel is obvious from the start. Myers builds the plot around a screenplay that Steve is writing during his trial for murder. Thus, most of the novel is told in dialogue, with characters' names in typewritten boldface followed by their remarks in regular type. Interspersed among the scenes of the screenplay are handwritten notes by Steve, in which he tells of his terror in prison and conveys his thoughts about events. Some handwriting is in boldface, indicating the main points he wishes to make. All this may be disquieting to some readers, but the experimental construction of Monster provides a way to look at Steve through his own eyes; since much of the novel emphasizes Steve's struggle with the moral aspects of his conduct, the screenplay format offers a good way to look at how Steve sees himself and at the question of whether he has become a monster.
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Although Monster focuses on moral issues that transcend social issues, it necessarily touches on significant social problems. Miss O'Brien's comment to Steve that being young and black may already make him seem guilty to the jury brings up a long-standing social issue, that of discrimination against African Americans in law enforcement. Social scientists have done surveys indicating that young black men form a disproportionately large group of prison inmates in the United States. Whether this disparity is due to racial prejudice, a higher number of crimes committed by blacks, or other factors such as poverty is not discussed in Monster. Miss O'Brien's remark is intended to emphasize the difficulty of persuading jurors to acquit Steve, not to explore the thorny issue of racism. Steve's individual responsibility is more important than his race.
The prison system is another social issue raised by Monster. Steve is perpetually frightened in prison, and he has great reason to be. Men are beaten and raped nightly. Guards are indifferent to the brutality and apparently ignore the savage assaults. Their appearance of indifference is disturbing. After all, they are the authority figures in the prison. It is supposedly up to them to maintain order. Instead, prison is a hell in which the worst people are able to abuse the others.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Is Steve Harmon a monster?
2. Even though he went into the drugstore, looked around, and went out as he was expected to by Bobo and James King, Steve thinks that he is not really guilty of a crime. Why does he think this? What does this tell us about his personality?
3. At the end of Monster Steve says that "My father is no longer sure of who I am." Why would Steve's father be unsure? How sure is Steve himself of who he is?
4. What might have happened to Steve if the prosecution had seen his screenplay and notes?
5. After Steve's acquittal, his lawyer, Miss O'Brien, turns away from his hug. He asks himself, "What did she see that caused her to turn away?" What did she see? Why would she not be happy to have won a difficult case?
6. The text of Monster is unusual, with handwriting, screenplay dialogue, and scattered boldface. How do these elements affect your impression of the novel? Do they enhance your experience of the novel's events, or not?
7. During one of his mother's visits to Steve in prison, it seems to him that "she was mourning me as if I were dead." Why would he think this? Why would his mother be mourning him?
8. Steve's film teacher characterizes him as a very sensitive young man. How sensitive is Steve? Is he as sensitive about the man who was murdered as he is about himself?
9. Steve's teacher says he is an upright young man, yet Steve...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. How many American shop owners are robbed each year? How many are killed? Are the robbery and murder in Monster typical?
2. How common are beatings by inmates of other inmates in prisons? How common are rapes? Are the accounts of beatings and rapes in Monster accurate?
3. In your state, under what circumstances may a juvenile such as Osvaldo be tried as an adult? How often are juveniles tried as adults? How are they treated?
4. What are the ethical guidelines of your state's bar for lawyers defending guilty clients? How would they apply to Monster?
5. Objections are raised several times during the trial in Monster. What are the rules for making objections during a trial? When is an objection valid? When is it invalid?
6. What moral issues are raised in Monster? How well are they handled?
7. Who speaks for Alguinaldo Nesbitt in Monster? Some states have laws that allow representatives of murder victims to participate in trials. What forms do these laws take? How are the representatives of the victims allowed to take part in trials? Would any of the laws you discover have helped in the trial of Steve Harmon and James King?
8. Monster has many true-versus-false images. Identify them and explain how they affect the plot and affect Steve.
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Myers's writings are usually categorized as directed at young African American male readers—an overly narrow assessment of their appeal. Monster deals with universal issues; members of any ethnic group can value what Myers has to say about the human condition. In Scorpions (please see separate entry), the protagonists Jamal and Tito are of two different ethnic groups, African American and Puerto Rican. In that novel a gun and a shooting figure prominently, as they do in Monster, and challenging moral issues form the interest of much of the novel. Like Steve, Jamal and Tito make some bad choices about criminal acts.
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For Further Reference
Bishop, Rudine Sims. Presenting Walter Dean Myers. Boston: Twayne, 1990. An overview of Myers's life and writings before the 1990s.
Brown, Jennifer M. "Walter Dean Myers Unites Two Passions." Publishers Weekly 246, 12 (March 22, 1999): 45. Notes that Myers combines stories with old photographs in his recent books.
Carton, Debbie. Booklist 95, 17 (May 1, 1999): 1587. Of Monster, Carton says, "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."
Lane, R. D. "'Keepin' It Real': Walter Dean Myers and the Promise of African American Children's Literature." African American Review 32, 1 (Spring 1998): 125-38. Says that Myers writes books to help African American children think creatively about their experiences. "Myers's fictional characters are intended to advance a singular voice derived from collective nonfictional experiences tempered by an urban landscape."
Micklos, John. "Author Walter Dean Myers Stresses Realism in His Writing." Reading Today 8, 4 (February-March 1991): 38. Discusses Myers's motivations and audience.
Myers, Walter Dean. "Let Us Celebrate the Children." Horn Book 66 (January-February 1990): 46-47. Myers stresses the importance of children and of efforts to enhance their lives.
Raymond, Allen. "Walter Dean Myers: A 'Bad...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bishop, Rudine Sims. Presenting Walter Dean Myers. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Brief monograph meant to introduce readers to Myers and his work, providing serious analysis of the novels and of young adult literature generally.
Doughty, Terri. “Locating Harry Potter in the ’Boys’ Market.” In The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon, edited by Lana A. Whited. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. Compares the gritty—albeit experimental—realism of Monster to the fantasy setting of the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Walter Dean Myers: A Literary Companion. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Extensive study of the author’s life and work, emphasizing the literary analysis of those characteristics of his fiction that are of particular interest to young adult readers.
“Walter Dean Myers.” In Writers for Young Adults, edited by Ted Hipple. Vol. 2. New York: Scribner, 1997. Overview of Myers’s career and his place in the young adult canon.
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