When people hear about someone who has committed a particularly heinous crime, there is a natural tendency to wonder what happened to that once completely innocent young child to turn that person into a monster. Walter Dean Myers poses that question from a slightly different perspective in his novel Monster. The question that Myers asks can essentially be described as what is left of the other themes tackled in the novel when they are boiled down to their essentials: what happens to an innocent young child that they can become one of those people that society labels a monster.
The difference in those two questions is subtle but of great significance because becoming a monster in the eyes of others is ultimately out of your control until you happen to be one of those rare individuals who are genuinely clinically diagnosed psychopaths rather than people who fit quite comfortably somewhere along the long and varied spectrum of what is described as psychologically normal until they engage in an acts of spectacularly atypical deviant cruelty. The great mass of people acts of tremendous cruelty that are incontrovertibly deviant rather those for whom cruelty is an authentically organic constituent of their personality are those upon whom the label of monster depends to an extent far greater than they may think on the perception of their deviance by others.
Steve Harmon is such an individual in Monster. Still just a teenager, Steven discovers himself the star player in the circus that an infamous murder investigation can become. Part of what makes the novel such a fascinating take on a well-worn plot device is that as the reader becomes obsessed with discovering with whether Steve is deserving of being termed a monster, Steve himself is struggling to determine the same thing.
Or, to put it another way, Monster is not just a suspenseful thriller, it is also an existential meditation of what it means to be a good person or a bad person. On the trip toward arriving at an answer that is satisfactory for both Steve and the reader, the usual suspects get rolled out for cross-examination: are monsters born or are they made? If the latter, is it society that makes a monster or are they entirely a DIY project? If it is society that is responsible for creating a monster, how much responsibility does a justice system that almost seems purposely designed to assist in the monster-making bear? Can any blame be placed upon sociological issues like poverty, the crime rate and the breakdown of the traditional family system?
Monster refuses to back down from confronting all typical societal explanations behind what turns a normal person into a monster. What makes it stand out from the crowd, however, is how it shapes this sociological study from that perspective that places a burden upon the society that has rarely been considered: what has caused people to view Steve as a monster and what is making him question whether or not those people might be right to do so.