Sometimes, a small choice has monstrous consequences, and there's no better example of this predicament than the story told in Walter Dean Myers's award-winning novel Monster. A teenager named Steve Harmon finds himself on trial, facing the death penalty, for being the "lookout" during what turned out to be a lethal burglary. The core themes of this novel address justice, institutional racism, deception, guilt, and the effects of peer pressure. Myers subtly draws a distinction between legal guilt and moral guilt through the actions and emotional state of each character involved in the trial. As they read, students should note which characters are guilty and in what manner. Moreover, how does each type of guilt affect the characters differently? Which kind has a more lasting impression? Additionally, the role Steve's race plays in how he is perceived by the jury can lead to an in-depth discussion about prejudice and discrimination.

Instead of using the traditional chapter-to-chapter format, Myers structured Monster as a work of confessional literature, shifting between Steve's emotional journal entries and a screenplay Steve wrote about the trial. To further engage your class, consider having students perform parts of the screenplay or write journal entries from the perspective of another key character. Additionally, the author incorporates thought-provoking artwork by his son, Christopher Myers. Students who enjoy the visual arts will appreciate applying themes from the novel to analysis of these illustrations.

Beyond making the novel structurally interesting, Myers makes unique narrative choices, employing literary devices such as flashback, stream of consciousness, and unreliable perspective. Authors often uses these tactics to emphasize a character's humanity, with struggles and flaws. Facilitate classroom discussion about the degree to which Myers succeeds in creating an empathetic character, and how Steve's introspection and experiences both limit and expand the story.

Court is in session: Learn everything you need to know about Monster below!

Summary of Monster

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1999
  • Length: 281 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 670
  • Recommended Grade Band: 6-8
  • Awards: 1999 National Book Award Finalist, 2000 ALA Best Books for Young Adults, New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 2000 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Literature for Young Adults

Part epistle, part screenplay, Monster tells the story of 16-year-old Steve Harmon, a teenager from Harlem on trial as an accomplice to murder. Harmon describes his emotionally challenging experiences in prison through a series of journal entries and the events of the trial in a screenplay format. Forced to confront the consequences of his choices, Steve grapples with guilt and self-perception as he endures brutality in jail and institutional racism in court. Despite being found innocent in the end, he is plagued by the trial's aftermath.

Content Warning: Although middle-grade readers are the intended audience for Monster, the novel contains references to violence, drug use, and sex, so the maturity of your class should be considered.

What Your Students Will Love about Monster

  • The interesting format of journal entries and screenplay excerpts
  • The drama and suspense of the trial

Potential Student Struggles with Monster

  • Keeping track of all the key characters in the trial
  • Extracting the truth from Steve's unreliable narration

Learning Objectives for Monster

  • Draw the distinction between legal and moral guilt as it relates to the characters.
  • Discuss to what extent Steve is guilty and in what way.
  • Trace themes regarding discrimination in the criminal justice system, deception, and the effects of peer pressure.
  • Examine the author's choice of using two main formats—journal entries and a screenplay.
  • Evaluate how Steve's time in jail affects him emotionally and develops him as a character.
  • Engage with the text in creative ways, such as dramatic performance and analysis of illustrations.

Literary Elements in Monster

  • Confessional Literature
  • Drama
  • Epistolary Format
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Inference
  • Soliloquy
  • Stream of Consciousness
  • Theme
  • Unreliable Narrator

Major Themes in Monster

Lies and Betrayal — Steve makes the critical mistake of trusting the wrong people; key characters in the trial lie for self-preservation or to protect others.

Related Works:

Justice — Through illustrating the damaging emotional effects of imprisonment and being on trial, Myers makes an argument about the injustice that overwhelms the justice system.

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Guilt — The novel examines the difference between innocent and "not guilty" as demonstrated by the characters present in the trial.

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Other Resources for Monster

  • Monster, a movie adaptation of the novel, premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The indie film, directed by Anthony Mandler, stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Jennifer Hudson, and Jeffrey Wright.
  • Watch Mandler and Harrison discuss the movie here!
  • Film review from The Hollywood Reporter
  • Video summary from Minute Book Reports
  • Editorial from The New Yorker: "Do Jails Kill People?" (Note: Riker's Island, mentioned in this article, is where a witness in Steve's trial, Salvatore Zinzi, was imprisoned. Zinzi may have fabricated or embellished information about Steve's involvement in order to escape his horrid circumstances at the prison).
  • Article from The Associated Press: "At 73, Jersey City author Walter Dean Myers is a hero to young readers"

Order Monster Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Monster Paperback Student Edition
Monster Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Monster Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Monster Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Monster Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set