Sometimes a book hits all the right notes, but not in quite the right manner. Monster, a Michael L. Printz Award winner and Coretta Scott King Award and National Book Award finalist, has a whole lot to say and does so in a striking and unusual format, but ultimately falters with a large segment of its intended audience. Walter Dean Myers is an accomplished author and Monster has been a controversial book from the time it was published - challenged by The Censors for its violent content. For me, neither awards nor potential banning can convince me that the book works for most middle and high schoolers.
Monster tells the story of sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon. Steve is on trial for felony murder, standing accused of taking part in a robbery that led to a shooting death. He is in jail awaiting trial as we enter the story and he tells us about the experience through journal entries and a screenplay he is developing to help him cope with his ordeal. We see the trial and jail through his eyes and words only.
I have no issues with realistic Young Adult fiction. In fact, I think it may represent the best we have to offer teenagers in regards to dealing with their own lives and experiences through literature. Classics are all well and good, but if they don't engage, they are of limited value in helping kids through the minefield of middle and high school. Monster is definitely realistic. Steve comes across as a scared kid - not a hardened criminal as the prosecution asserts. His descriptions of jail are frightening and we do feel sorry for him being in such an adult institution.
Steve also questions how those around him are seeing him now that he's in jail. His parents, sibling, the other inmates - who is he now? Do they see him as just another black kid destined to get in trouble? Do they see him as just another criminal now that he sports the jail jumpsuit? Does he look just like everyone else in that place? His questions of self image are probing and heartbreaking. His journal entries show us a child, confused and scared and wondering exactly who he is now in the eyes of the world.
The format of using journal entries and Steve's screenplay make for an interesting read. The journal entries are most revealing, for that is when he seems to let his guard down. He talks about the awful things that happen in jail - the beatings and sexual assaults - and how much he hates it there. He talks about who he has become during his time there. He talks a lot about himself. He only talks about himself.
The movie script that Myers uses to document the trial as well as various flashbacks to the time around the crime is seemingly more objective. We hear from people other than Steve - lawyers, witnesses, kids and adults from the neighborhood, admitted participants in the crime. But we have to remember that Steve is writing this as well - no matter how factual it seems with its screenplay lingo and traditional font usage, this is still Steve talking. He's more detached, but the words remain his alone.
Monster is definitely violent, but there are kids out there who live in this world, a world where violence is common-place. The idea that kids need to be shielded from this reality is ridiculous and as usual The Censors are full of crap. Yes, there are a lot of kids who will be shocked by the images that Steve's descriptions create. But that's reality and the sooner they understand that their own sheltered existence does not apply to the whole world, the sooner they can get on with the business of becoming compassionate and complete adults. No one, no matter the color of their skin or the income of their family, is immune to reality.
So where does Monster fail its audience? I mentioned that it hits all the right notes, but not in quite the right way. And clearly I think it does hit some important and poignant notes. But where Myers ultimately stumbles is in his expectations of his young audience. The book is age ranged at thirteen and up. Juniornocket read it at fourteen and did not like it - unequivocally did not like it. A friend of my daughter who is in middle school tried to read it and gave up, he couldn't get into it.
The problem is that the story is far too nuanced for most young teenagers. Not all, but a lot. In the reading, Steve does little but describe his misery and self-doubt...over and over and over. The screenplay is dry and feels clinical in its recounting of the trial. We switch from all emotion to none. As a result, the book gets bogged down in its own structure.
As an adult, I found it repetitive almost to the point of becoming uninteresting. Not until the end is there a small but significant occurrence that makes the reader look at the whole of the story and start asking questions about Steve and his narrative. By the time kids reach that point, they are likely to miss it - if they've even gotten that far. Myers would have been wise to cut the 281 pages by 25% and give us some clues to the ultimate complexities that lead to Steve's massive identity crisis earlier on. As it stands, he loses his audience before he has a chance to really make his point about moral ambiguity, the justice system and scared minors dealing with a terrifying unknown.
Monster is in no way a bad book. As realistic fiction it can either illuminate a world that some kids already know about or introduce a world that some kids have never even imagined. Either way, it doesn't shy away from what it really means to be in jail and have your entire life be placed in the hands of disinterested strangers. But the real nuance, the real crisis faced by this child is one of self. He has no idea who he is during or after his trial. The subtleties of why he is so tortured are very likely to be missed by young readers lulled by the repetitive meandering of the bulk of the book. I would increase the suggested age to at least sixteen - not because of the violence or harsh situations but because the less sophisticated, younger reader is simply not going to get everything the book has to offer. Four stars for content, but I'm going to take one off for unrealistic target audience expectations on the part of the author.
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