Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. 1999, HarperCollins. 281p. Grades 6-12. Realistic Fiction. (2000 Printz Award).
While on trial for the murder of a drugstore clerk in his Harlem neighborhood, Steve Harmon writes a series of connected diary entries and screenplay scenes in an attempt to understand and come to terms with his role in the case. No hard and fast conclusions are drawn in this harrowing novel, and it remains unclear to both Steve and the reader exactly what his involvement entailed—was he a lookout for those committing the crime? Was he involved at all? Where does the truth lie? Myers has no easy answers to these questions, leaving it up to readers to decide for themselves.
Thoughts– The inaugural winner of the Michael L. Printz Award really blew me away with its readability, unique structure, high level of ambiguity, and authentic teen voice. For me, this book demonstrates why Walter Dean Myers is considered such a master of YA realistic fiction. For one thing, I think teen readers would eat up this book—I read it in one sitting and was hoping for more at the end—it is such a fast-paced and accessible read. I also think it would work well in a classroom for this same reason; it would be easy to keep kids interested in Steve’s story and the structure, subject matter, and open-ended conclusion would provide lots of fodder for class discussion.
The screenplay format with the interspersed diary entries seems much more familiar to readers in 2013 than I think it would have in 1999 when traditional problem novels were still the mainstay of YA writing. Monster takes some core themes of the problem novel—search for identity, the threshold between childhood and adulthood, the repercussions of bad decisions—and turns the format on its head. Not only does the structure deviate from the traditional narrative format, but also Myers provides his readers with absolutely zero easy answers or trite lessons. Steve isn’t sure how to answer the question of whether he is a monster or not himself at the end of the novel, and the reader is left to make that decision for herself. Steve’s voice rings true throughout the book, and he sounds like a real teenager sitting in any classroom across the country. All these elements combine to make a taut, elegant novel to which readers of all abilities, ethnicities, and socio-economic levels will respond.