October’s book club sessions focused on Monster by Walter Dean Myers. Besides being captivated by the reality and relatability of the book, Books Unbound (B.U.) participants were pleasantly surprised by the mix of artistic modes (screenplay, photos, and journal entries) that the book uses to tell the story of incarcerated youth Steve Harmon. Check out the round up below for main discussion topics, favorite moments, and, of course, how the B.U. members rated the book!
Main Discussion Topics and Insights
Are All Crimes Equal?
This was a very intriguing question for the B.U. members, as I think it is for many of us. Monster pivots around Steve’s involvement in a case of murder. Up for debate is whether or not Steve served as lookout while his associates entered a store, killing the man working in the shop. At one point, Sandra Petrocelli, the prosecuting attorney, states that everyone involved in the crime is “equally guilty. The one who grabbed the cigarettes, the one who wrestled for the gun, the one who checked the place to see if the coast was clear.” Asked whether all crimes are equal — and thus, should be punished equally — the B.U. participants’ consensus was that crimes are not equal, and should be dealt with on a case by case basis.
Is Steve Guilty?
Part of Monster‘s appeal is that it invites readers to judge Steve’s innocence — or lack thereof — for themselves. Like the trial it depicts, it presents a mixed bag of evidence for and against Steve. The B.U. members had a lively debate about whether certain elements in Steve’s story pointed to his guilt or innocence. Ultimately, they all agreed that Steve was innocent.
Additionally, I noted that their debate is one that jurors engage in every time they are called upon for a trial, and that if they are ever asked to serve jury duty, they’ll have to revisit this exercise. I challenged them to think about what kind of jurors they would want to be, and they listed qualities like empathetic, analytic, and fair. We also talked about how our own experiences serve as the background against which we judge others, and that even the most considerate among us is susceptible to letting our biases seep through. The best we can do is to be aware of these biases — including any temptation to practice moral disengagement by brushing off criminal activity as something that monsters rather than humans do — and challenge ourselves to make the most just decisions we can.
Using Mixed Media to Tell a Story
Though this was undoubtedly not the first time that B.U. members had encountered pictures in a book, it was the first time they had read a novel that employed a combination of screenplay, photography, and journal entries. Before sending them off to read Monster, I explained that a screenplay is what is written for a movie before it’s produced. This is the first time they had encountered the idea that writing precedes film, a concept I was able to easily demonstrate since we read Divergent in September. Luckily, all of the B.U. participants had read plays before, so they were able to understand how to read a screenplay without a problem. They liked that the font of the screenplay text was different from that of the journal entries. While they all felt that the photographs added to the authenticity of the story, some felt that the photos could have been more strategically placed throughout the book.
The Importance of Diverse Stories
In addition to Monster, I had the B.U. members read Walter Dean Myers’s essay, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” While it didn’t spark their excitement as much as Monster, it served as the foundation for a discussion we had about why it’s important to write and read diverse stories. Their commentary centered around how vital it is for the public to know that people like Steve Harmon — that children like themselves — are incarcerated. We talked about how most people don’t devote much thought to incarceration, especially incarceration of minors. Yet incarceration is an essential element in our justice system, and as such, deserves to be considered as much as more popularly-discussed issues like capital punishment. The sentiment I gathered most from the B.U. participants is that they don’t want the public to forget about them, and that reading stories like Monster can help give them a voice in a time of powerlessness.
My favorite moment was when the B.U. participants realized how crucial writing is to creating films. It was one of those delightful instances when, because you understand something more, you experience a simultaneous shrinking and expansion of the world. One of the best parts of reading is gaining new perspective. Hopefully, the next time the book club members watch a television show or movie, they can reflect a little more on all the work it took to make it possible.
If time had permitted, one creative project I would have liked to do with the book club members would have been for them to each write short screenplays of their own lives. They would have the freedom to focus on one event or to capture a multitude of events, like Steve’s narrative does.
Books Unbound Member Rating
4.7 out of 5.
The B.U. participants’ response to Monster was overwhelmingly positive. After much deliberation, the only criticism was that the plot was a bit predictable, since Steve ends up being found not guilty.