Monster (by Walter Dean Myers)

30 12 2011

With a body of work of more than 50 novels, a string of awards – not to mention the very first Michael L. Printz award for the novel at hand – in his honour, Walter Dean Myers is a giant in American children’s and young adult literature. His 1999 book Monster not only received the aforementioned award for excellence in young adult literature, it was also a National Book Award finalist, and a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book. Today, the novel is still discussed in classrooms all over the English-speaking world.

At the time of publication, this slender book mostly stood out because of its peculiar form: it is part movie script and part personal diary. In terms of the actual content, on the other hand , it doesn’t really tell an original tale – as one of the characters in the book says: “You’re young, you’re Black, and you’re on trial. What else do they [the members of the jury] need to know?” (p. 54) Indeed, in Monster, the reader sees things from the perspective of 16-year-old Steve Harmon who’s accused of being involved in a robbery and the consequent death of a drugstore owner in Harlem, New York, and who’s on trial for felony murder. Myers does not only focus on the trial itself (which Steve, a promising film student, has adapted into his very own movie script), but also on Steve’s prison experiences (personal diary format). Because of this particular mix Monster made the cat think of a perfect blend of Oz and Law and Order, two television shows which first aired in the 1990s, Walter Dean Myers’ Monster era.

Much like Oz, Steve’s prison experience emphasizes feelings of fear: fear of violence,  fear of being sexually assaulted in prison, fear of having to stay in prison, fear of having to deal. Then again, it is this process of introspection and taking responsibility that will lead Steve out of his cycle of fear: “Truth is truth. It’s what you know to be right,” Steve claims towards the end of the novel (p.135). The question as to whether Steve really is the monster of the title is left fairly unresolved by Walter Dean Myers, and as such it is the reader’s prerogative to make a decision one way or the other. It is this ‘open’ decision left to the reader which is still the most appealing element of the book today. The format itself may have lost some of its uniqueness, the story itself is (unfortunately) fairly mundane today, but the intentions and the guts that Myers showed with this book have stood the test of time.

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