Monster by Walter Dean Myers

“Miss O’Brien looked at me-I didn’t see her looking at me but I knew she was.  She wanted to know who I was.  Who was Steve Harmon?  I wanted to open my shirt and tell her to look into my heart to see who I really was, who the real Steve Harmon was.

That was what I was thinking, about what was in my heart and what that made me.  I’m just not a bad person.  I know that in my heart I am not a bad person.”

Hi from library school in Montreal, friends! Look what I have for you: a fast read, an incredible story, written by an author you should definitely get to know, if you don’t already. You are going to go crazy about this one!

Steve Harmon got mixed up in some bad business.  Felony business.  He’s a 16-year-old who grew up in Harlem, and he agreed to be the lookout for a friend who was planning to rob a drugstore.  The robbery went south, the owner was shot and killed, and Steve finds himself looking at 25 years to life in prison if he is convicted.   The story follows his trial, from his own perspective.  He talks about prison, and his deepest fear: everyone looks at his brown face and hears about the crime, and thinks he is a monster.  Deep inside, he’s afraid that everyone might be right.

See all those shiny medals on the cover?  Those are the biggies: Printz, National Book Award Finalist,  and Coretta Scott King award.  Plus, Walter Dean Myers has been awarded the Margaret Edwards Award, the one given to honor lifetime achievement.  That’s only handed out to one author, once a year.  Big stuff, guys!  Of course, there are amazing books and authors that go unrewarded out there, too, but the awards are a great guide if you’re not sure what you want to read.

So, awards aside, the beauty of this book is its gritty story, simpler language, and unconventional format (a pastiche of journal entries and film script).  The format makes it especially appealing to ELLs, or older students who may need a really good hook and a fast-paced read, as well as anyone not looking for a straight-up, novel-style read. ( However, while it may be a quick read, Myers definitely does not sacrifice emotional impact or plot.) I finished it over the course of a week, but that was because I was interrupted by an international move, and after the furniture-assembling, apartment-cleaning, grocery-st0re-finding-missions, and hours-long Skype phone calls, all I could do was read for a few minutes and fall asleep with my cheek smashed into the pages.  Thanks for being patient-I really did want to get this finished and share it with you!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website :

Myers, Walter Dean. Monster. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. 281 pp (but it reads quickly!). Ages 13 and up.


Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena

“And if people only knew how that felt.  Having the whole family stare at him and his tortilla, these people he adores.  That’s when he wishes he didn’t get such good grades.  When he wishes he lived even closer to the border than they did…When he wishes he got in more trouble at school.”

Danny’s mother is white, and his father is Mexican.  He goes to a fancy private school in San Diego, where he’s the only boy with brown skin.  His passion is baseball; he’s got a killer arm, but didn’t make the school team because he can’t always control his pitch.

When his mom and sister go to San Francisco for the summer to be with her new boyfriend, Danny decided to go stay with his cousins instead.  He didn’t ever feel at home in San Diego, but he doesn’t speak Spanish and so he doesn’t feel like he fits in with the National City side of his family, either.  However, he meets an unlikely ally-a boy named Uno, who starts off by beating him up over an accident.  The two team up and become fast friends, working up a hustle based on Danny’s pitching.  Together, they trick high school baseball players into betting that Danny can’t strike them out.  See, they need the money: Uno’s trying to save up enough money to visit his father, and Danny’s doing the same thing.  The one thing that Danny doesn’t know is that his father didn’t run off to Mexico; he’s actually in jail.  When he finally learns it, it changes everything, and Danny has to work hard to figure out who he is and what he should do with his life.  The summer passes in a mix of baseball, girls, family, and identity-formation.

So, normally, I don’t like sports books.  I just can’t get into them.  I was doubtful for the first chapter of the book, but then I was completely hooked.  It’s a great story.  It’s a coming-of-age story, full of Danny’s problems with his identity and how he fits into the world, but it’s never sappy or trite.  He has a very real, believable voice, and is surrounded by well-developed, realistic characters.  It’s a fantastic story, and I totally get why YALSA picked it as a Best Book.  There’s some rough stuff about self-injury (not terribly graphic) and issues with spousal abuse and some underage drinking, so this book is probably better for the 15 and up crowd.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

de la Pena, Matt. Mexican White Boy. Delacorte: New York, 2008.  252 pp. Ages 15 and up.  ISBN 978-0385733106.

If you liked this book, check out another book by de la Pena called Ball Don’t Lie or The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez by Alan Lawrence Sitomer.