Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

“Every time I try to talk to my parents or a teacher, I sputter and freeze. What is wrong with me? It’s like I have some kind of spastic laryngitis.”

I stayed us late reading this book.  It transported me back to the sheer wretchedness of being a teenager, left me haunted and edgy, trying to reassure myself that I was, in fact, an adult now, far away from those years.  Even the author comments on the visceral power of the story.  In her introductory letter, she says:

“Speak is the book that I wasn’t going to write.  Why would I want to revisit the agonies of adolescence? Wasn’t that the point of surviving to adulthood-so I could block out the traumas of being a teenager?”

The book relates the story of Melinda, a self-described “Outcast”, a “clanless” girl, formerly popular, with good grades, but who called the police at a summer party (for reasons that aren’t revealed until midway through the book), and is subsequently ostracized for it.  The writing pulls you inside her head, really creating the feel of isolation.  Melinda observes the different groups at school, and tries to deal with the abandonment of her former friends.

We learn that Melinda was raped at the party, and hasn’t told anyone.  She is dealing with the trauma of the assault as well as the added injury of complete social excommunication.  It’s a painful read, but well-punctuated with Melinda’s wry and often comic observations of the students around her.  Readers follow her pitiably bleak life through sections of the book, divided like academic grading periods.  Eventually Melinda finds her voice, aided by a sympathetic art teacher, and is able to open up and begin her healing process.   

Laurie Halse Anderson is a big name in the YA lit world.  Speak won many awards, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  The Edgar award goes to distinguished mystery writers, and at first, I was a bit confused, because I didn’t see the book as a mystery.  However, in a way, it certainly is: readers don’t know what is interfering with Melinda’s ability to talk until mid-story.  Anderson has another novel that I’ve been wanting to read for a while, called Fever 1793, about the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. It, too, won several honors and awards.

This is a well-written book that doesn’t bow to sensationalism or drama: the strength in the text lies in its realism, which I feel gives teens a lot of credit.  Anderson doesn’t write down to them or presume to understand their lives, but creates a character that is believable and complex.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://madwomanintheforest.com/

Anderson, Laurie Halse.  Speak. New York: Penguin Group, 1999. 197 pp. Ages 13 and up.  ISBN: 978-0142407325. Paperback.

If you liked this book, try Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff, or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.

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