Author: Walter Dean Myers
Publisher: HarperCollins World
Year of Publication: 1999
- My favorite parts of the books are Steve’s journal entries, which allow readers to depart from the formal, matter-of-fact language of the script to get a glimpse into Steve’s feelings. The first entry of his notebook (p. 1-5) was particularly hard to read. At sixteen, most boys feel tough and like nothing can defeat them, and are great at masking their emotions. Steve is presumably tougher than most boys, since he’s hung out on the streets of Harlem, with some rough, shady characters. It’s hard to imagine what kind of conditions he experienced in jail that would cause him to shed his macho exterior and reduce him to a sniffling, little boy. It’s sad to think that even when he’s that scared, he has to figure out when’s the best time to cry, so as not to draw attention to himself.
I like how the journal entries also reveal his struggle with identity, how a few months in jail have made him doubt who he was:
- “When I look into the [mirror], I see a face looking back at me but I don’t recognize it. It doesn’t look like me” (p. 1).
- He writes in another entry, dated July 8, “I want to look like a good person. I want to feel like I’m a good person because I believe I am. But being in here with these guys makes it hard to think about yourself as being different” (p. 62).
- A day later, he observes that Miss O’Brien doesn’t really see him. “Who was Steve Harmon?” he writes. “I wanted to open my shirt and tell her to look into my heart to see who I really was…. I know that in my heart I’m not a bad person.”
- Even after the trial is finished and he is acquitted, he is unsure of himself. “That is why I take the films of myself. I want to know who I am. I want to look at myself a thousand times to look for one true image. What did [Miss O’Brien] see that caused her to turn away? What did she see?” (p. 281)
The other thing the journal entries revealed were his close relationship with his family, which humanizes him and adds to his childlike qualities. I love the scene where he and his brother Jerry talked about being superheroes, and Jerry said Steve should be Batman, so he could be Robin (p. 58). It’s sweet that Jerry so unabashedly looks up to his older brother, and the friendly shove from Steve only goes to show his obvious love for Jerry. The scenes where Steve’s parents visit him in jail are almost unbearable, especially the one where Steve realizes his father might also start to doubt him and see him as a monster (p. 116).
- Monster was actually the first book I read this term, a couple of weeks before classes started. One scene stopped my reading right on the tracks, kept me awake for a couple of nights, and still haunts me two months later. As powerful as this book is, this scene defined the entire story for me. On page 73:
CUT TO: Weird shot of INTERIOR: DEATH ROW. STEVE is seen walking down the hallway between two guards. He is brought into the death chamber. The guards are pale, almost greenish. They lay STEVE on the table for the lethal injection and strap him down.
CU of STEVE’s face. He is terrified.
VO (as camera focuses on STEVE’s face)
Open your legs; we have to plug up your butt so you don’t mess yourself as you die.
STEVE’s face grimaces with pain as they put in the plug.
I can hardly type this scene without tearing up. In one sentence (the voiceover), Steve is completely dehumanized. I think about the sheer terror…what if he were my child…that he is someone’s child…that someone’s child/brother is put to death like this, reduced to nothing but something that could mess up the cot and cause extra clean-up…a nuisance. And yet, this is a life. I was never one to take a stance for or against capital punishment – I’ve always just thought it’s not up to me to decide about someone’s life – but this one sentence really rattled me. I don’t know if I’d want even the worst criminals to face what Steve faces….
The book also reminds me of the unfair treatment of black youths and racial profiling…as Steve wrote in his notes at one point, “What did I do? What did I do? Anybody can walk into a drugstore and look around. Is that what I’m on trial for? I didn’t do nothing! I didn’t do nothing!” (p. 115) It’s painful to think about the vicious cycle inner-city kids are stuck in.
- This book will most likely appeal to teenage boys exclusively, particularly those who are interested in crime/murder fiction, even though the book is about much more than that. It makes a powerful read for both African-American and non-African-American students, and offers an insightful look into our judicial system, our own prejudices, and the fragility of self-identity. Because the book is written in script form as well as journal entries and lower reading level, it can be read quickly and appeal to reluctant/struggling readers. Though the courtroom scenes are matter-of-fact, some of Steve’s descriptions of life in jail might be too upsetting for younger readers. For that reason, I would recommend this book for older middle-schoolers and up.
Awards, Honors, Prizes, Best Lists:
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, 1999 Honor Book Fiction United States
Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2000 Honor Book Author United States
Edgar Allan Poe Award, 2000 Nominee Best Young Adult Novel United States
Isinglass Teen Read Award, 2003 Winner New Hampshire
Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 2002 Winner Grades 9-12 Kentucky
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1999 Finalist Young Adult Fiction United States
Michael L. Printz Award, 2000 Winner United States
Adventuring with Books: A Booklist for PreK-Grade 6, 13th Edition, 2002 ; National Council of Teachers of English
Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2000 ; Bank Street College of Education
Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth, 1999 ; American Library Association
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Fourteenth Edition, 2001 ; National Council of Teachers of English
Books in the Middle: Outstanding Books, 1999 ; Voice of Youth Advocates
Bulletin Blue Ribbons, 1999 ; Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
Capitol Choices, 1999 ; The Capitol Choices Committee
Children’s Literature Choice List, 2000 ; Children’s Literature
Horn Book Fanfare, 1999 ; Horn Book
Lasting Connections, 1999 ; American Library Association
Lasting Connections, 1999 ; Book Links
Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005 ; H.W. Wilson
Not Just for Children Anymore!, 2000 ; Children’s Book Council
Parent’s Guide to Children’s Media, 1999 ; Parent’s Guide to Children’s Media, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, April 1999 ; Cahners
Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002 ; California Department of Education
Senior High Core Collection, Seventeenth Edition, 2007 ; The H. W. Wilson Co.
Senior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Fifteenth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2000 ; American Library Association
YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2000 ; American Library Association
Accessed at: Personal Library