Rating: B+/ I was reluctant to read this book because I was afraid it was going to be overly political. I don’t mind stories about racism and racial bias but it feels like that’s all people talk about these days and frankly, I needed a break from all that (I initially thought the same thing about the film Fruitvale Station, which turned out to be an exceptionally fair-minded and thought-provoking movie.) Monster is a very short novel and creatively utilizes a screenplay format, along with excerpts from the main character’s journal, to tell it’s story.
Steve is a likable sixteen-year-old black kid who is on trial for felony murder. He’s an aspiring filmmaker and writes about the things that are happening to him as a movie script, in order to understand how his life could have gone so awry and to distance himself from an all-around horrible situation. Steve proclaims his innocence in a convenience store robbery that left a well-respected man in Steve’s Harlem community dead, but it is largely ambiguous whether Steve’s reiteration of the events is true.
This aspect of the book might frustrate some people; the ambiguity of Steve’s role in the shooting, and the narrative that leaves the reader questioning whether Steve was in on the robbery at all. Steve professes his innocence throughout the entire story, but Steve’s lawyer, Kathy O’Brien, and even his own dad have their doubts. I personally thought the way the book was written was surprisingly effective, because you’re connecting with the main character even as you doubt his reliability.
I was expecting Monster to be more about the racism of the judicial system than it actually was. Steve’s lawyer, Kathy O’Brien, brings up race at one point, saying that as a young black man the jury will have a bias against Steve right off the bat. For the most part, though, Steve could be a white kid and the overall substance of the story wouldn’t change much.
As the protagonist of this story, Steve is alternately strong, youthful, despairing, and vulnerable. Even though you don’t get a large amount of time with him due to the book’s brevity, he is easy to sympathize with and he’s also a character you want to believe is not capable of the crime he’s being tried for. It doesn’t help that two of the guys Steve is accused of planning and carrying out the crime with are jaded criminals so evil that they went out to a chicken restaurant to have lunch after leaving the storekeeper dead and bloody on the floor of his business. As we get further and further into the book’s trial, the screwier and more complicated the case becomes.
Monster is a young adult book, but I think that it’s thoughtful and intelligent enough that it will probably appeal to many adult readers as well. I read in the book’s afterward that Walter Dean Myers interviewed hundreds of inmates serving time in the prison system as well as professionals to get the details of the story right. The result is disturbing, but thought-provoking. Both a fascinating courtroom drama and the intimate account of the death of a teenage boy’s innocence, Monster is a harrowing jolt of electricity for both teen and adult readers.