The summer before her freshman year of high school, Melinda Sordino broke up a teenage party by calling the cops. Now none of her old friend will even speak to her anymore and she feels like everyone hates her for it. Melinda struggles through the school year, rarely talking to anyone, but finds some solace in her art class where her difficulty in figuring out how to draw a tree becomes a metaphor for the current state of her life. But what no one knows or ever cared to find out is that something bad happened to Melinda at that party, something she's having trouble dealing with. At first, she just tries to bury it deep in her psyche, but it starts to come out in her increasingly erratic behavior. Eventually she's faced with finally speaking her truth in order to prevent someone else from getting hurt.
Speak is Laurie Halse Anderson's first novel that she wrote for young adults. It's the story of high school freshman, Melinda Sordino, and follows her throughout this year of her life. During the summer before school started, Melinda attended a party and it ended with her calling the police. Everyone who was there is upset with her about this and the few friends she had have now turned their backs on her. She's become the school pariah and most of the kids won't have anything to do with her. We watch as the sharp-witted, sarcastic Melinda struggles through the school year. Obviously depressed and with no one she can really talk to, she rarely speaks to anyone but finds some solace in art class, where she wrestles with how to draw a tree. It seems like a simple thing, but it becomes a metaphor for her own life and the things she's dealing with. The reader gradually becomes aware that something bad happened during that summer party, something Melinda is trying to figure out how to deal with. At first, she simply tries not to think about it, burying it down deep inside herself, but eventually it starts to work it's way out and invades her psyche, making it difficult to function. Before long, Melinda is faced with finding a way to speak her truth or possibly watching someone else get hurt.
Melinda is a girl who isn't unlike other loners and outcasts in the high school experience. She misses the few friends she had in middle school, but one could argue that they weren't truly her friends at all given how quickly they abandoned her after the party incident. She finds a new friend but their relationship doesn't go much beneath the surface, and although her relationship with with her lab partner is perhaps a more meaningful one, she never really allows him to get close. Melinda's family and home life is equally troubled, with her parents frequently arguing. She's also an only child who isn't close to her parents either. Rather than communicating with her in a healthy way when her grades start dropping and she begins cutting class, they simply get angry with her. As a result, Melinda spends a lot of time in her own little world, trying to figure things out by herself. She finds an abandoned storage closet at school that she claims as her personal haven and sometimes just randomly goes places where she can observe people. As she works her way through the school year, she gradually begins processing what happened to her. Although her progress is slow and painful, she eventually finds her voice and is able to speak her truth and stand up for herself, which changes everything. Melinda is a strong girl to go through what she did and deal with it all on her own. Although clearly depressed, she manages to get through it without resorting to anything truly destructive. She has a keen awareness of human nature and her sarcastic observations about everyone around her can often be darkly humorous. Everyone deals with trauma in a different way, and I think it was all part of her process. I like that there is a positive ending for her where she's starting to find healing. It's one that I believe will give hope to readers, especially those who might have been through a similar experience.
Basically ever since it's publication, Speak has consistently been found on the American Library Association's banned/challenged books list. In fact, it's made the Top 100 list for the past two decades. In all honesty, I have no idea why people are so afraid of this book. Before reading it, I was expecting to find some truly offensive material in it, but nothing could be further from the truth. There's little in the way of language. I noted only a few mild swear words, so few in fact, that I could probably count them on one hand. There is no sensuality, not even any kissing. At the party, we discover that Melinda had a few beers, but it only warranted a couple of lines in the entire book. Melinda does spend the entire book dealing with depression, which might be difficult for teens who are also dealing with this to read, but I think that she handled it as well as could be expected under the circumstances. She cuts class and her grades suffer, which some adults might view as bad behavior, but at her heart, Melinda is a good kid who simply had bad things happen to her that she's trying to process. Probably the most concerning thing would be that the story deals with sexual violence, but quite frankly it's done so in as delicate a way as possible. There is a rape scene but it's written in such a way that it's clear what's happening but there are few details. There is also an attempted rape scene, and while it has a few more details and additionally includes some physical violence, it, too, was written as circumspectly as possible. So my assessment of the book is that parents and others who are trying to ban/challenge it are way overreacting. I believe that high schoolers could definitely handle the subject matter and it's an important topic to be discussing given that many sexual assaults happen during the teen years.
Speak isn't the type of book one necessarily enjoys because of it's challenging subject matter, but it is a very important story that I think more teens should read and really think about. Melinda is a strong character who handles what happened to her as best she can in her young mind with little outside support. Although she chooses not to speak a large part of the time, when she finally finds her voice, it's a powerful moment. The book is pretty realistic in the way that it handle the topic of sexual assault and how many survivors often do go through it alone, feeling ashamed or fearing being ostracized or not believed or worse if they do speak up. Because of this, I think this book could be a valuable tool for helping victims find their voices or at least not feel quite so alone. I think it can also be a tool for teaching consent, which is something that all teens should be learning, as they're starting to navigate sexual feelings. Laurie Halse Anderson is very good at capturing the teen mindset, so I think that most teens would find the story relatable in some way. When I started reading it, I was enjoying Melinda's voice but I didn't initially feel strongly connected to her, which is why I dropped the half star. However, this got better as I went along. I also suspect that there is a lot of symbolism in the story that I might have been missing. I'm not the best at parsing hidden meanings in books, but I hope to read it again sometime to see if more stands out to me. This is the type of book that I think one might get more out of with each new reading. Overall, I think it was well-written and nicely done, deftly handling a difficult subject with grace, respect, and dignity. I honestly think Speak should be required reading for the high school level, rather than being banished to the book dungeon like so many seem to want to do.
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