This month I’m blogging about what I’ve called “textual anomalies,” by which I mean the crazy stuff that writers are allowed to do in middle grade and young adult novels and pretty much nowhere else. Things like changing fonts to indicate a character’sdifferent states of mind or sticking a character’s artwork into the text or simply allowing a narrative to take a totally untraditional form, like a screenplay, for instance. In honor of anomalies, I’ve switched things up and used a picture of my cat, Oscar.
I was going to write about a bunch of different novels that have cool textual anomalies, but then decided that these novels are too good to lump together. So I’m going to hit them one at a time!
First up, I want to talk about Monster by Walter Dean Myers. This is one of my favorite books and one of the reasons I decided to try writing children’s books way back when. It was so exciting to read something that felt like such a departure from traditional narrative. While I think there are adult novels that break new narrative ground—Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino comes to mind—children’s writers seem willing to throw out the traditional molds entirely.
What makes Monster such a departure is that it’s written in three different modes: a screenplay being written by the narrator, the narrator’s journal, and pictures of the narrator inserted into the text. The narrator, Steve Harmon, is on trial for felony murder, and he’s using the screenplay as a way to both distract himself from the horrors of being in jail and as a way of examining whether he in fact is the “monster” the prosecutor alleges he is in her opening statement.
A little law break (knew the J.D. would come in handy one day…:): The reason why Steve’s guilt is not readily apparent to him is because a charge of felony murder allows the prosecutor to hold all members of a conspiracy to commit certain felonies accountable for any murders that occur in the course of the felony’s commission. Steve is accused of having been the lookout for two men who, after Steve gave them an “all-clear” signal, entered a store with the intention of robbing it and accidentally shot the store’s owner when he pulled a gun on the robbers. Steve is not accused of having shot anyone or even of having known that there was going to be a gun involved in the robbery—but this is the power of the felony murder charge. Any death that occurs during the course of certain inherently dangerous felonies is on the felon and his co-conspirator’s heads, whether they intended to kill someone or not. In some jurisdictions, if a cop, while chasing a felon fleeing the scene of a crime, kills a pedestrian with her cruiser, all the felons involved in the crime can be charged with the murder.
So why write this story this way? Myers might have thought that a book that doesn’t look like a book might be more attractive to teen readers. However, that answer doesn’t explain why he chose to write in the format of a screenplay and journal and photos, specifically. Also, just writing in a weird format isn’t enough in itself to create a successful book—how many people read regular screenplays? If there’s not some connection between the choice of anomaly and the story being told, then the anomaly is just a gimmick. A teen reader who picks up something that looks cool but ends up feeling fake or disjointed because of a gimmicky textual anomaly will quickly put that book back down.
We learn early on that Steve is in a film class at his high school (Stuyvesant, which is a very prestigious magnet school in the NYC public school system), so at the most basic level the screenplay idea fits with the narrator. And who doesn’t like reading someone else’s journal? And pictures—how fun! But Myers wrought these three formats together to do more than simply tickle the reader’s fancy.
The journal, printed in a handwriting-ish typeface, gives the narration the aura of authenticity. The reader feels like she’s getting “primary source” material—she is reading the character’s own handwritten confessions to himself. While this is an exciting way to interact with a character, diaries are a biased and thus flawed interaction. The reader can’t trust what she reads. The character might be lying to himself in the journal—when was the last time you were completely honest in your journal?—or at a minimum, he is only telling you one side of the story: his own. In the case of a criminal trial, the reader would be shocked if the accused did anything other than proclaim his innocence, even if in a contemplative way, as Steve does.
But this is where the screenplay comes in. The distance created by the screenplay format allows Steve to look at himself and his case the way an outsider (the jury) would look at it. Additionally, Steve includes in his screenplay scenes that do not appear in the court record—his own memories of his actions—which are also the most damning. He admits to himself (and the reader) that he did know his co-conspirators, that he talked with them about the robbery in at least general terms, and thought at the time that the men were cool and tough and scary. The inclusion of these scenes—stuff the reader wouldn’t know if she was simply sitting in the courtroom—shows that Steve is weighing his own guilt in this matter alongside the prosecution. He is laying out all the evidence for himself, trying to present his actions in an unbiased way in the hopes that he can prove to himself that he is not a monster.
The images used in the text give further insight into Steve’s internal struggle. The pictures are of a boy in a striped t-shirt, except for one, which is of a woman (Steve’s mother) holding up a blurry picture of a boy standing in front of a brick wall. The pictures represent Steve trying to see himself in the events of the day of the robbery. Two look like security camera stills with gray script beside them saying “What was I doing?” and “What was I thinking?”. At one point, he blurs his own face out of the image—he can’t (or refuses to) recognize himself in that moment, when he allegedly gave the “signal.” I think the picture of the woman is Steve trying to see himself the way his mother does—she cannot believe he’s a monster. Finally, there’s a courtroom sketch inserted into the scene where Steve gets his verdict. He needs to pretend that it’s not even him in that scene—just a picture, a cartoon—he’s so scared.
No matter how cool or interesting or jump-off-the-shelf enticing each of these textual modes is, what makes Monster so successful is that Myers employed them for specific effects to enhance the story he was telling. The intimacy of the journal builds sympathy between the reader and Steve, while the screenplay provides some distance by which to judge Steve’s actions along with him and the jury, and the pictures give additional insight into moments where Steve is not able to verbalize his feelings. The screenplay alone would feel too cold; the journal alone too biased; and the pictures would not make sense unless juxtaposed as they are within the various sections of text. Far from being a distraction or mere trick to get you to read a book, the textual anomalies in Monster make the story richer.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Monster, or on other books which have employed non-traditional modes of storytelling. Next month, I’m thinking of blogging on movies. I’m kind of a movie addict and relish any opportunity to ramble on about films, so hey, why not ramble on about them in my blog? Isn’t this why the blog was invented: rambling? See you in July!