My first reread of the year! And, I’m pleased to say, this book held up so beautifully to rereading. I first read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in grad school, in David Levithan’s Teen Literature seminar. At that time (waaaaaay back in fall 2008) I was still fairly new to teen lit, and while I loved most of what we read for that class, this book in particular blew me away. I picked it up this week after my agent mentioned that several elements in my own manuscript reminded her of a twist on Speak. And so, not only did I get the chance to reread a classic in the teen lit canon, I spent the past two days looking at my manuscript through a new lens. I call that a win-win!
Speak is the story of Melinda, a high school freshman who suffered a traumatic experience over the summer. You don’t know exactly what happened to her at the start of the book, aside from the fact that all of her friends have dumped her and she spent the weeks before school started holed up at home, hiding from the world. Melinda has a wonderful sarcastic voice from page one, but at the same time, you can feel the fear and pain behind every word. As she describes the various cliques assembling in the auditorium on the first day of school, she immediately notes that she is “Outcast” — “a wounded zebra in a National Geographic special.” The teachers and the other students are predators, ready to take her out without a moment’s notice. High school as depicted in this book is survival of the fittest, and Melinda is definitely not at her fittest. She shrinks more and more as the year goes on.
It turns out (though you guess fairly early on) that Melinda was raped at a party. She’s now an outcast because she never told anyone about the rape, and thus is blamed for calling the cops and getting several kids arrested. Now, she’s carrying around the burden of what happened to her, on top of being that girl who busted the party. Her only friend is a new student, Heather from Ohio, who doesn’t realize at first that being friends with Melinda — the quiet, weird girl no one likes — is social suicide. Predictably and heartbreakingly, Heather drops Melinda partway through the book, finding more acceptable (and outgoing and ambitious) friends.
But while all of these plot details are important, what really sells the book is Melinda’s voice. There’s hardly any dialogue, but her internal monologue is smart, sarcastic, and funny, even while barely concealing her growing hysteria and depression. She stops speaking almost entirely over the course of the book. The key to her ability to even get out of bed is denial: she won’t admit to herself what happened, much less tell anyone else. But with her rapist, a senior, at school with her, even going out of his way to interact with her, it gets harder and harder to ignore the truth. So, part of the story is having to come to terms with the reality of the situation and figure out if it’s possible to move on.
Speak is also about Melinda finding her voice and saying, out loud, that something terrible has happened. It’s a slow, arduous journey. At first, she speaks by not speaking — will anyone realize how much is truly wrong? When that fails, she speaks through art, to the one teacher in the book who reaches out. Unfortunately, while he sees that she’s in pain, what she has created is too abstract to tell the whole story. Toward the end of the book, she even tries writing what happened, as a way of warning her former best friend away from the same guy. Her efforts are thrown back in her face. The only way out is to use her voice. To say no to her rapist. To speak the truth about what happened to her. To tell people who can help her find her way out of the dark place she’s been in. When that moment comes (and you feel pretty confident/hopeful it will; this isn’t a huge spoiler), it’s incredibly powerful.
Can you tell I loved this book? Never mind that reading it this week, as spring is finally (finally!) coming to NYC, felt really appropriate. Melinda’s art project for the year centers around trees, and this is what I have right outside my window:
Last week, I watched those little buds form. This week, the green started to spread. By next week, I’m hoping for actual leaves and blossoms. That, plus a truly excellent book, should end this post on a high note. 🙂