Walter Dean Myers - Published 1999
Walter Dean Myers was born August 12, 1937, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When he was two years old, his mother died, leaving his father to cope with eight children. Myers and two of his sisters were taken in by Herbert and Florence Dean, who, although poor, took good care of him. In gratitude, he made Dean his middle name during the 1970s.

They lived in Harlem for most of his youth. He had a severe speech impediment that made his life difficult when he was required to speak. This may have made him somewhat shy and account for the solace he found in reading literature while still in elementary school. His love of books may also explain why he decided to be a writer. After dropping out of high school, he bounced from job to job before joining the army. Upon leaving the army, he began writing in earnest for the National Enquirer and men’s magazines.

He landed a job as an editor at Bobbs-Merrill Company in 1970 and held it until 1977. While at Bobbs-Merrill, Myers quickly learned about the publishing side of professional writing and learned how to put together a book that would satisfy a publisher’s needs. At first, he created picture books for small children. Then he tried his hand at writing fiction, both for young adults and for elementary school-age youngsters. Since then he has been celebrated for his books about African Americans. His success in this area, however, has tended to pigeonhole him as a writer with limited ethnic appeal, even though his writings transcend race and speak to all readers.


Monster is presented as a screenplay, with handwritten comments, by the main character Steve Harmon. Steve says that he is writing the screenplay to keep his sanity while being held in prison during his trial for murder. “I am so scared. My heart is beating like crazy and I am having breathing trouble,” he writes. “The trouble I’m in keeps looking bigger and bigger. I’m overwhelmed by it. It’s crushing me.” In a story about a young man who gets in deep trouble by being greedy and wanting to look tough, the sheer terror of prison and the prospects for conviction are conveyed in blunt descriptions.


There are three important locales in Monster. The most frightening is prison. From the start, Steve wants nothing more than to escape from the prison. Inmates are beaten up nightly, and men are raped even in Steve’s own cell. He does what he can to avoid looking vulnerable, certain that he would be beaten or raped if he did, but he is acutely aware that he is the youngest-looking inmate. He even avoids smiling at those who smile at him, afraid that even a smile would invite the worst. Monster does an incredible job of conveying the misery and horror of imprisonment. No one, not the guards, not the other inmates, cares one whit about Steve’s safety. As for his fate, the guards have a betting pool on how long a sentence he will receive. Everyone seems convinced of his guilt except Steve himself.

Another setting is the courtroom, a world unto itself in which reality is distorted, even lost altogether. In it the tough-talking gang member Osvaldo is a shy, soft-spoken witness. Having already admitted his part in the robbery and murder, he plays on his age (only 14) and contrives to seem like a little boy. James King, Steve’s codefendant, appears to be handsome and dignified, even though he is a thug on the streets. The unreality of the courtroom contrasts not only with how people are perceived outside but with Steve’s prison. In the courtroom all is governed by procedure. Everyone has a place to sit or stand, and rituals must be followed. In prison nothing is sacred. Inmates steal Steve’s food, and there is nothing to be done about it. Men are raped; nothing is done to help the victims. Beatings are almost random. And there is no privacy. Steve is afraid to use the toilet in front of other inmates. The courtroom is a marked contrast to prison, but it is in the courtroom that Steve’s future is decided; whether he will remain behind bars, in the stark horror of prison, is decided in a place where nothing seems real.

The third major setting is revealed through testimony and Steve’s comments on events. He hung out with street toughs, trying to seem tough himself. He knew gangsters, muggers, robbers, and others who preyed on the weak and helpless. His part in the robbery and murder is something he is reluctant to admit to himself. He only went into the drugstore and out again. How can that be a crime, he wonders. Yet, his going into and out of the drugstore was plainly part of the crime of which he was a part. Thugs attacked and shot to death the immigrant owner of a small store, a business built through long hours of hard work. The hard cruelty of the deed is brought out by the prosecution during the trial, in contrast to defense efforts to distort what happened and to lay the blame elsewhere.


“You’re young, you’re Black, and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?” Miss O’Brien, Steve’s lawyer, tells him. She makes it clear that Steve’s case will be hard to win, if for no other reason than the common stereotype that young black males are likely to be guilty of violent crimes. Early on in Monster, Steve suspects that Miss O’Brien thinks the case will be tough to win not only because he is a young black male but because she believes he is guilty of the crime with which he has been charged. Even so, she is smart and cagey and does her best to separate Steve from James King and the other parties involved in the murder. She wants the jury to think that the others were merely passing acquaintances of Steve. She succeeds, but after the acquittal is announced, “STEVE turns toward O’BRIEN as camera closes in and film grows grainier. STEVE spreads his arms to hug O’BRIEN, but she stiffens and turns to pick up her papers from the table before them.” Does she see a monster when she looks at Steve?

This troubles Steve. He spends much of the novel wondering whether he is the monster the prosecution would have the jury believe him to be. He insists in his notes on his screenplay that he is not guilty—that what he did was too trivial to amount to being a participant in a robbery and murder. Yet, he has enough common sense to doubt his rationalizations: “It was me who lay on the cot wondering if I was fooling myself.” This problem is the crux of the novel, because even though the plot is organized around the trial, the moral issues raised by Steve’s actions give meaning to the events that transpire.

Steve tells us much more about himself than he means to, lending irony to much of what he has to say. His terror makes him a sympathetic figure: “I am so scared. My heart is beating like crazy and I am having breathing trouble. The trouble I’m in . . . [is] crushing me.” On the other hand, he is a liar who perjures himself in court by denying that he was anywhere near the store the day of the murder, even though he has admitted to being there in his notes. Further, his actions have hurt many people besides the murder victim. For instance, when his mother visits him in prison, Steve observes, “In a way I think she was mourning me as if I were dead.” She is deeply anguished throughout Monster.

Even after being acquitted, Steve discovers that there is still a price to be paid for his conduct. For example, “My [Steve’s] father is no longer sure of who I am. He doesn’t understand me even knowing people like King or Bobo or Osvaldo. He wonders what else he doesn’t know.” His image in others’ eyes seems markedly changed. Further, his image of himself has changed: his image, he thinks, “looks like one of the pictures they use for psychological testing, or some strange beast, a monster.” He wonders, “When Miss O’Brien looked at me, after we had won the case, what did she see that caused her to turn away?” For all his rationalizations and excuses, Steve finds it hard to look at himself and suspects that he may really be a monster.


That Monster is an unusual novel is obvious from the start. Myers builds the plot around a screenplay that Steve is writing during his trial for murder. Thus, most of the novel is told in dialogue, with characters’ names in typewritten boldface followed by their remarks in regular type. Interspersed among the scenes of the screenplay are handwritten notes by Steve, in which he tells of his terror in prison and conveys his thoughts about events. Some handwriting is in boldface, indicating the main points he wishes to make. All this may be disquieting to some readers, but the experimental construction of Monster provides a way to look at Steve through his own eyes; since much of the novel emphasizes Steve’s struggle with the moral aspects of his conduct, the screenplay format offers a good way to look at how Steve sees himself and at the question of whether he has become a monster.


Although Monster focuses on moral issues that transcend social issues, it necessarily touches on significant social problems. Miss O’Brien’s comment to Steve that being young and black may already make him seem guilty to the jury brings up a long-standing social issue, that of discrimination against African Americans in law enforcement. Social scientists have done surveys indicating that young black men form a disproportionately large group of prison inmates in the United States. Whether this disparity is due to racial prejudice, a higher number of crimes committed by blacks, or other factors such as poverty is not discussed in Monster. Miss O’Brien’s remark is intended to emphasize the difficulty of persuading jurors to acquit Steve, not to explore the thorny issue of racism. Steve’s individual responsibility is more important than his race.

The prison system is another social issue raised by Monster. Steve is perpetually frightened in prison, and he has great reason to be. Men are beaten and raped nightly. Guards are indifferent to the brutality and apparently ignore the savage assaults. Their appearance of indifference is disturbing. After all, they are the authority figures in the prison. It is supposedly up to them to maintain order. Instead, prison is a hell in which the worst people are able to abuse the others.


1. Is Steve Harmon a monster?

2. Even though he went into the drugstore, looked around, and went out as he was expected to by Bobo and James King, Steve thinks that he is not really guilty of a crime. Why does he think this? What does this tell us about his personality?

3. At the end of Monster Steve says that “My father is no longer sure of who I am.” Why would Steve’s father be unsure? How sure is Steve himself of who he is?

4. What might have happened to Steve if the prosecution had seen his screenplay and notes?

5. After Steve’s acquittal, his lawyer, Miss O’Brien, turns away from his hug. He asks himself, “What did she see that caused her to turn away?” What did she see? Why would she not be happy to have won a difficult case?

6. The text of Monster is unusual, with handwriting, screenplay dialogue, and scattered boldface. How do these elements affect your impression of the novel? Do they enhance your experience of the novel’s events, or not?

7. During one of his mother’s visits to Steve in prison, it seems to him that “she was mourning me as if I were dead.” Why would he think this? Why would his mother be mourning him?

8. Steve’s film teacher characterizes him as a very sensitive young man. How sensitive is Steve? Is he as sensitive about the man who was murdered as he is about himself?

9. Steve’s teacher says he is an upright young man, yet Steve tells us that he hangs out with criminals, and he even challenges Osvaldo to a fight. How do you account for the two different perceptions of Steve—the creative, honest filmmaker and the violent, tough-talking participant in a robbery?

10. Would you have voted to find James King innocent or guilty? Would you have voted to find Steve innocent or guilty?

11. Will Steve avoid criminals in the future, or will he get into trouble again?

12. Is Steve’s action—checking out the drugstore before the robbery—criminal enough to make him guilty of accessory to murder?

13. Why would Miss O’Brien put up such a good defense if she thought her client was guilty? What are the ethical questions she must consider?

14. Is it immoral for a lawyer to defend a guilty client?

15. Miss O’Brien says that closing arguments do not win cases. In what part of the trial does she win Steve’s case?

16. How honest with himself is Steve?

17. What was your response when you read the sentence: “He has been found not guilty”?

18. Should Miss O’Brien be ashamed of herself?


1. How many American shop owners are robbed each year? How many are killed? Are the robbery and murder in Monster typical?

2. How common are beatings by inmates of other inmates in prisons? How common are rapes? Are the accounts of beatings and rapes in Monster accurate?

3. In your state, under what circumstances may a juvenile such as Osvaldo be tried as an adult? How often are juveniles tried as adults? How are they treated?

4. What are the ethical guidelines of your state’s bar for lawyers defending guilty clients? How would they apply to Monster?

5. Objections are raised several times during the trial in Monster. What are the rules for making objections during a trial? When is an objection valid? When is it invalid?

6. What moral issues are raised in Monster? How well are they handled?

7. Who speaks for Alguinaldo Nesbitt in Monster? Some states have laws that allow representatives of murder victims to participate in trials. What forms do these laws take? How are the representatives of the victims allowed to take part in trials? Would any of the laws you discover have helped in the trial of Steve Harmon and James King?

8. Monster has many true-versus-false images. Identify them and explain how they affect the plot and affect Steve.


Myers’s writings are usually categorized as directed at young African American male readers—an overly narrow assessment of their appeal. Monster deals with universal issues; members of any ethnic group can value what Myers has to say about the human condition. In Scorpions, the protagonists Jamal and Tito are of two different ethnic groups, African American and Puerto Rican. In that novel a gun and a shooting figure prominently, as they do in Monster, and challenging moral issues form the interest of much of the novel. Like Steve, Jamal and Tito make some bad choices about criminal acts.

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