by Walter Dean Myers
We had the great pleasure of attending a book reading by the magnificent Walter Dean Myers while at the 2012 National Book Festival. After his prepared remarks, he took questions. Among them was, "Where did the idea for Monster come from?" He responded that after doing work with some young incarcerated men, he was conferring with a prosecutor and asked, "What is the most difficult part of your job? Funding?" "No,"the prosecutor replied, sadly. "The most difficult part of my job is convincing the court that these boys are human."
With a seed planted, he went away ready to tell the story of these boys. He chose to write the book with a combination of writing techniques. We come to know the main character, Steve Harmon, through his journals. We learn the details of his trials though a screenplay Steve is writing to cope with this experience. What we learn as we read is that Steve has been arrested for participating in a robbery turned murder. He is sixteen. He is afraid. And, while he seems confused by his reality, he is clear that prison is a frightening place. The book begins,
"The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. That way even if you sniffle a little they won't hear you. If anybody knows that you are crying, they'll start talking about it and soon it'll be your turn to get beat up when the lights go out."
This isn't a pleasure read, but it sheds light on a truth not regularly being told. Walter Dean Myers told us he loved reading, because through it he has seen and experienced the world. With his help, I have looked at life with a new pair of eyes, and learned a little about myself.
I am reading this book with a small group of young African American men at the moment. We had our first conversation today. I asked them why the book might be named Monster. One of the boys replied, "It's a true story. When you go to court you are guilty until proven innocent, that's why he named it Monster." It wounded my heart.