Written by: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publication Information: Originally published 1999. This edition published 2011 by Square Fish.
One Line: Melinda starts her freshman year as an outcast because she called the cops at a huge end-of-summer bash, and as the year goes on, she not only loses the ability to speak up for herself, but to speak at all.
Brief Summary: When Melinda starts her freshman year of high school, she is an outcast. She’s not part of any of the cliques, and her friends (who used to be with her in the “Plain Jane” clan) are not speaking to her. She called the cops and busted an end-of-summer party, and everyone hates her. It hurts her that even her friends didn’t ask her what really happened. The only person who will talk to her is bubbly new girl Heather, and Melinda befriends her, but isn’t really interested in anything she says or does. Melinda stumbles through her days, hiding in a school closet she’s decorated with her artwork, going late to class, avoiding homework, and talking
Thoughts: A National Book Award Finalist and winner of a myriad of awards, Speak is considered a young adult classic. It deals with difficult topics such as teenage depression and rape, but because of the engaging, realistic, and bleakly humorous voice of its narrator Melinda, is still accessible and does not hit you over the head with messages. Told in a series of titled vignettes that are built into sections divided by Melinda’s semesters, the sparse prose is both lyrical and descriptive, and the author creates shivers up the spine with things as simple as a character twirling Melinda’s ponytail. There is also suspense, as Melinda only gradually reveals what happened to her. The descriptions of high school are spot on, from the fact that history classes (at least in the 90s) rarely get past the Industrial Revolution in American History to the “stay sweet” scrawled in yearbooks. Speak has a great deal of symbolism present, as well, as Melinda is assigned to draw a tree (all year) in art class and struggles to bring it to life, finally learning that she must prune the dead branches, just as she herself figures out how to come back to life at the end of the book. She also chews up her mouth constantly, nearly destroying her lips, highlighting her inability to discuss what happened to her and the self-blame she feels.
Anderson’s themes seem to be both the importance of speaking up and the importance of listening: even though it’s hard, speaking up against wrongdoing can eventually get you freedom. Although she does not state it in so many words, it is also apparent that no one is really “listening” to Melinda (although she does not say much out loud for most of the book). It seems as though most adults expect her to be a moody teenager and blame her problems on that, and instead of really trying to figure out if something is wrong, her parents jump to the “you’re bad and need to change” conclusion. This is an important message, as instead of jumping to negative conclusions about people whose behavior we don’t understand or is difficult for us to deal with, we might stop and take a look at that person and really try to have some empathy. Had her parents been more in tune, Melinda probably would have been able to reveal the truth long before she did. The book is also an important discourse on the subject of rape, as it seems that some people have stopped understanding that “no” means no, no matter when it is said, and it is important for everyone to understand the damage rape can do to a human being. It is also a story of depression, and Melinda’s lack of interest in anything, and the way she seems to fade away, are very accurate pictures of that disease. Speak is a quick, relatively easy read text-wise, but it packs an incredible punch, and is an important book for today’s young people.
Author Information: From Laurie Halse Anderson’s website, www.madwomanintheforest.com: “Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous national and state awards, as well as international recognition. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Laurie was honored with the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature…”. Mother of four and wife of one, Laurie lives in Northern New York, where she likes to watch the snow fall as she writes.”