FADE IN: Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon sits on the edge of a cot in Cell Block D of the Manhattan Detention Center. A dingy gray, early morning light filters in from the window and splashes his light brown face. Next to him, as the camera moves into focus, we see the suit he will wear to court. His trial starts today.
This is the beginning of "Monster!" -- a film written and directed by and also starring Steve Harmon. It's the "incredible story of how one guy's life was turned around by a few events, and how he might have to spend the rest of his life behind bars...told as it actually happened."
Cinema Vérité, you say? That's a term that Steve's film teacher might use to describe a film that "conveys realism." No, "Monster!" is even more real (and frightening) than that. This is the story of what happens when the world turns inside out for Steve Harmon, when the teen finds himself on trial for felony murder. In order to cope as the drama of his life unfolds, Steve blocks out the events and dialogue that swirl around him. He's the writer, the director, and the star of his own real-life horror story. And eerily, he has no idea how "Monster!" will end.
Neither do we.
What is certain is that Monster, Walter Dean Myers's new blockbuster novel, will captivate readers' imaginations from its opening pages until long after the last scene fades. In fact, Myers unravels Steve Harmon's story so masterfully, so sensitively, that very few readers will be able to set the book down without feeling as though their own lives have been changed somehow. Yes, Monster is that good.
Who are this novel's intended readers? More specifically, who should they be? Some consideration of these questions is necessary for this unusual book. Mature teens will devour Monster. Adults will too, and in fact will find the mixed screenplay/journal format refreshing and fast-paced, not kid-like at all. Frankly, though, I believe younger teens may be impacted most profoundly (and positively) by the story of Steve Harmon, who stumbles almost unknowingly into a nightmare that might keep him locked behind bars the rest of his life. However, these younger teen readers may need some guidance and support while reading Monster. It's a gritty tale. While Myers deals discreetly with the jail's lack of privacy (open toilets) and frequent invasions of privacy (for example, sexual coercion between inmates), he doesn't obscure those realities. We watch Steve sit in that courtroom and sympathize with his stomach distress, which is not merely the result of nervousness over the outcome of the trial but worsened because he's not comfortable using the toilet in open sight of the other prisoners.
As he writes in his introductory note to readers, Walter Dean Myers, in writing Monster , hoped to show the steps that lead someone "from innocence to criminal acts and, eventually, to prison." The award-winning author spent months interviewing killers, drug pushers, prostitutes, and other criminals serving time in prison before he set pen to paper for Monster. These interviews revealed a common thread: "...that no one went from being completely innocent to living in jail in one dramatic step. There always seemed to be interim stages. Decisions to bend, not break, the law. Minor infractions...would lead to petty thefts. Petty thefts and fare-beating might lead to street-corner drug sales. Each experience...would give permission for the next experience. Eventually a line would be crossed..."
And that's where we find Steve Harmon: 16 years old and on trial for murder. His parents' hearts break as they watch the drama unfold from their seats in the back of the courtroom. Did Steve serve as the lookout when Bobo Evans and James King robbed the drugstore and then killed the store's owner in the commotion? Or was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is he being framed by a couple of losers he used to call friends? In the tension-filled courtroom, reality begins to blur for Steve. How on earth did he get here? Is he a monster?
Walter Dean Myers's new novel will shock, disturb, awaken, and inspire.
Cathy Young is the founder of www.read-this.com, which specializes in creating web sites for authors, illustrators, and publishers.
Children's Literature - Sharon Salluzzo
Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon has been charged as an adult accomplice to murder. Steve resorts to his passion for filmmaking to put some order to and make some sense of his ordeal; his trial is presented as a movie. The reader feels his panic over the possibility of spending life in prison and his fears of being beaten and sexually abused there. The attorneys present their cases before the jury and the drama builds just as it would in a movie. Steve feels the surrealism of the stark reality he is facing. The reader is drawn into the trial, trying to determine, as is Steve himself, if he is the Monster that the prosecutor says he is, or a victim of circumstance. The film script concept works well on many levels. The illustrations, intermittently placed, present Steve in various ways: photos with his mother, on the drugstore surveillance camera, in a courtroom drawing, and in his mug shots. They give an added sense of reality to the narrative. This is a powerful, intense, thought-provoking story. It is great for discussions about the judicial system, pre-judging, self-perception, parent-child relationships and our prison system.
To quote KLIATT's Jan. 2001 review of the Listening Library/Random House audiobook edition of this title: Written by the central character, Steve Harmon, in the form of a screenplay for a movie, this ... follows the 16-year-old from the time he is arrested for felony murder through his trial. A drugstore owner in Harlem is killed as two men rob his store. Steve is accused of being the "lookout" for the robbers, all experienced criminals. He is implicated because of a deal the felons make to reduce their sentences in this crime. Steve, one of the "monsters" of the title, has a loving family and a caring, experienced lawyer.... Depictions of what jail offers younger accused these days are graphic, but accurate and honest... (winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature; a Coretta Scott King Award Honor Book; and a National Book Award Finalist.) KLIATT Codes: JSA*Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, HarperTempest, 282p. 18cm. 98-40958., $6.95. Ages 13 to adult. Reviewer: Jean Palmer; KLIATT , July 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 4)
School Library Journal
Gr 7-12-Walter Dean Myers' novel (HarperCollins, 1999) is brought to life by a full cast of actors in this excellent audio interpretation. The author opens this audiobook by discussing many of his interviews with young prison inmates and his desire to discover what drives them to a life of crime, what makes them become monsters in society. From the outset, listeners are caught up in Steve Harmon's life as he documents the events for the film script he is writing for his high school video club. Was Steve actually the lookout in a robbery gone awry in which a man was murdered, or was he simply at the wrong place at the wrong time? The suspense and tension remain high until the end when we are told whether the jury will find Steve guilty or innocent of the crime for which he is on trial. This auditory delight is presented in the clear, well-enunciated and articulated voices of a full cast of actors. The narrator, with his deep melodious voice, reads Steve's film directions and provides the quick scene shifts, guiding listeners through the story. His voice combined with the voices of the other actors, the strong plot, and the unusual story format grabs readers and holds their interest throughout. This interpretation could entice reluctant readers to become Myers' fans. Monster is a must purchase for all middle and high school libraries. English teachers should be encouraged to use this audiobook as a possible writing prompt or as an introduction to readers' theater.-Lynda N. Short, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Lexington, KY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Taylor-made for readers' theater, this book is a natural to get teens readingand talking.
Horn Book Magazine
In a riveting novel from Myers (At Her Majesty's Request, 1999, etc.), a teenager who dreams of being a filmmaker writes the story of his trial for felony murder in the form of a movie script, with journal entries after each day's action. Steve is accused of being an accomplice in the robbery and murder of a drug store owner. As he goes through his trial, returning each night to a prison where most nights he can hear other inmates being beaten and raped, he reviews the events leading to this point in his life. Although Steve is eventually acquitted, Myers leaves it up to readers to decide for themselves on his protagonist's guilt or innocence. The format of this taut and moving drama forcefully regulates the pacing; breathless, edge-of-the-seat courtroom scenes written entirely in dialogue alternate with thoughtful, introspective journal entries that offer a sense of Steve's terror and confusion, and that deftly demonstrate Myers's point: the road from innocence to trouble is comprised of small, almost invisible steps, each involving an experience in which a "positive moral decision" was not made. (illustrations, not seen) (Fiction. 12-14)
Read an Excerpt
Monster MSRChapter One
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.
There is a mirror over the steel sink in my cell. It's six inches high, and scratched with the names of some guys who were here before me. When I look into the small rectangle, I see a face looking back at me but I don't recognize it.
It doesn't look like me. I couldn't have changed that much in a few months. I wonder if I will look like myself when the trial is over.
This morning at breakfast a guy got hit in the face with a tray. Somebody said some little thing and somebody else got mad. There was blood all over the place.
When the guards came over, they made us line up against the wall. The guy who was hit they made sit at the table while they waited for another guard to bring them rubber gloves.
When the gloves came, the guards put them on, handcuffed the guy, and then took him to the dispensary. He was still bleeding pretty bad.
They say you get used to being in jail, but I don't see how. Every morning
I wake up and I am surprised to be here.
If your life outside was real, then everything in here is just the opposite. We sleep with strangers, wake up with strangers, and go to the bathroom in front of strangers. They're strangers but they still find reasons to hurt each other.
Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. It is a strange movie with no plot and nobeginning. The movie is in black and white, and grainy. Sometimes the camera moves in so close that you can't tell what is going on and you just listen to the sounds and guess.
I have seen movies of prisons but never one like this. This is not a movie about bars and locked doors. It is about being alone when you are not really alone and about being scared all the time.
I think to get used to this I will have to give up what I think is real and take up something else.
I wish I could make sense of it.
Maybe I could make my own movie. I could write it out and play it in my head. I could block out the scenes like we did in school. The film will be the story of my life.
No, not my life, but of this experience. I'll write it down in the notebook they let me keep. I'll call it what the lady who is the prosecutor called me.Monday, July 6th
FADE IN: INTERIOR: Early morning in CELL BLOCK D, MANHATTAN DETENTION CENTER. Camera goes slowly down grim, gray corridor. There are sounds of inmates yelling from cell to cell; much of it is obscene. Most of the voices are clearly Black or Hispanic. Camera stops and slowly turns toward a cell.
INTERIOR: CELL. Sixteen-year-old STEVE HARMON is sitting on the edge of a metal cot, head in hands. He is thin, brown skinned. On the cot next to him are the suit and tie he is to wear to court for the start of his trial.
CUT TO: ERNIE, another prisoner, sitting on john, pants down.
CUT TO: SUNSET, another prisoner, pulling on T-shirt.
CUT TO: STEVE pulling blanket over his head as screen goes dark.VOICE-OVER (VO)
Ain't no use putting the blanket over your head, man. You can't cut this out; this is reality. This is the real deal. VO continues with anonymous PRISONER explaining how the Detention Center is the real thing. As he does, words appear on the screen, just like the opening credits of the movie Star Wars, rolling from the bottom of the screen and shrinking until they are a blur on the top of the screen before rolling off into space.MONSTER!
The Story of My Miserable Life
Starring Steve Harmon
Produced by Steve Harmon
Directed by Steve Harmon
(Credits continue to roll.)VO
Yo, Harmon, you gonna eat something? Come on and get your breakfast, man. I'll take your eggs if you don't want them. You want them?STEVE (subdued)
I'm not hungry.SUNSET
His trial starts today. He up for the big one. I know how that feels.
CUT TO: INTERIOR: CORRECTIONS DEPT. VAN. Through the bars at the rear of the van, we see people going about the business of their lives in downtown New York. There are men collecting garbage, a female traffic officer motioning for a taxi to make a turn, students on the way to school. Few people notice the van as it makes its way from the DETENTION CENTER to the COURTHOUSE.
CUT TO: PRISONERS, handcuffed, coming from back of van. STEVE is carrying a notebook. He is dressed in the suit and tie we saw on the cot. He is seen only briefly as he is herded through the heavy doors of the courthouse.
FADE OUT as last prisoner from the van enters rear of courthouse.
FADE IN: INTERIOR COURTHOUSE. We are in a small room used for prisoner-lawyer interviews. A guard sits at a desk behind STEVE.
KATHY O'BRIEN, STEVE's lawyer, is petite, red-haired, and freckled. She is all business as she talks to STEVE.O'BRIEN
Let me make sure you understand what's going on. Both you and this King character are on trial for felony murder. Felony murder is as serious as it gets. Sandra Petrocelli is the prosecutor, and she's good. They're pushing for the death penalty, which is really bad. The jury might think they're doing you a big favor by giving you life in prison. So you'd better take this trial very, very seriously.When you're in court, you sit there and you pay attention. You let the jury know that you think the case is as serious as they do. You don't turn and wave to any of your friends. It's all right to acknowledge your mother.I have to go and talk to the judge. The trial will begin in a few minutes. Is there anything you want to ask me before it starts?STEVE
You think we're going to win? O'BRIEN (seriously)
It probably depends on what you mean by "win."
CUT TO: INTERIOR: HOLDING ROOM. We see STEVE sitting at one end of bench. Against the opposite wall, dressed in a sloppy-looking suit, is 23-year-old JAMES KING, the other man on trial. KING looks older than 23. He looks over at STEVE with a hard look and we see STEVE look away. Two GUARDS sit at a table away from the prisoners, who are handcuffed. The camera finds the GUARDS in a MEDIUM SHOT (MS). They have their breakfast in aluminum take-out trays that contain eggs, sausages, and potatoes. A Black female STENOGRAPHER pours coffee for herself and the GUARDS.STENOGRAPHER
I hope this case lasts two weeks. I can sure use the money.GUARD 1
Six days'maybe seven. It's a motion case. They go through the motions; then they lock them up.
(Turns and looks off camera toward STEVE.)
Ain't that right, bright eyes?
CUT TO: STEVE, who is seated on a low bench. He is handcuffed to a U-bolt put in the bench for that purpose. STEVE looks away from the GUARD.
CUT TO: DOOR. It opens, and COURT CLERK looks in.COURT CLERK
CUT TO: GUARDS, who hurriedly finish breakfast. STENOGRAPHER takes machine into COURTROOM. They unshackle STEVE and take him toward door.
CUT TO: STEVE is made to sit down at one table. At another table we see KING and two attorneys. STEVE sits alone. A guard stands behind him. There are one or two spectators in the court. Then four more enter.
CLOSE-UP (CU) of STEVE HARMON. The fear is evident on his face.O'BRIEN
MS: People are getting ready for the trial to begin. KATHY O'BRIEN sits next to STEVE.
How are you doing?STEVE
Good; you should be. Anyway, just remember what we've been talking about. The judge is going to rule on a motion that King's lawyer made to suppress Cruz's testimony, and a few other things. Steve, let me tell you what my job is here. My job is to make sure the law works for you as well as against you, and to make you a human being in the eyes of the jury. Your job is to help me. Any questions you have, write them down and I'll try to answer them. What are you doing there?STEVE
I'm writing this whole thing down as a movie.O'BRIEN
Whatever. Make sure you pay attention. Close attention. Monster MSR. Copyright © by Walter Myers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.