Sunday Afternoon Visits: April 8
A Girl, A Boy, and a Monster Cat: Gail Gauthier

Speak: Laurie Halse Anderson

I know that I'm the last person in the world to read this book, which was published in 1999. But I finally got around to reading Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. And wow! What an amazing book. Speak is narrated in the first person by Melinda, during her first year of high school. Formerly reasonably popular, Melinda has experiences a trauma over the summer. The exact nature of the trauma is revealed later in the book, but it's nature is fairly clear from the beginning. She also called the police on the last party of the summer, leading to her social ostracism as school starts.

Speak is the story of a girl who goes through her first year of high school depressed and barely speaking to anyone. It's necessary for the story to be told in first person, because it would be difficult to get a feel for Melinda from the face that she shows the world. She gets into trouble in school, doesn't study, and skips class to hide out in an abandoned janitor's closet. The only place she finds any solace is in art class, where an empathetic teacher shows her how to share her feeling through art. Gradually, she does get start to recover, and even to reach out to help someone else.

Although this book is about the aftermath of sexual assault, it will resonate with anyone who has ever suffered from long-term depression. The portrayal of Melinda's depression is deep and accurate. For that matter, anyone who ever suffered from issues of popularity or insecurity while in high school (and isn't that pretty much everyone?) will be able to identify with Melinda. Here are two examples:

"I have this halfway place, a rest stop on the road to sleep, where I can stay for hours. I don't even need to close my eyes, just stay safe under the covers and breathe." (page 16)

"Maybe I'll be an artist if I grow up." (page 78)

Speak is an important book because it gives voice to girls who have been raped, letting them know that they aren't alone, and that their feelings are valid. It's also an important book for teen boys. According to the author (in a special section at the end of the book, and also when I heard her talk recently at Kepler's Books), many teen boys have come up to her after reading the book and asked, genuinely, "why Melinda was so upset about being raped." Her theory is that "many young men are not being taught the impact that sexual assault has on a woman." If Speak can help them to understand, even a little bit, I think that high schools and college campuses will be safer places.

Despite all of this, Speak is not what I call a "message book", one that exists to make some lofty point. Melinda is a strong character in her own right, with a wry, often amusing voice. Laurie Halse Anderson's portrayal of high school is perfectly, sometimes painfully, accurate. And there are funny parts to lighten the mood, too. And Anderson's writing is top-notch. She's a master of craft. Here are a few examples of the lighter side of Melinda's musings:

"If she'd cut back on the doughnuts, she'd look like a tiny grandmother doll. Instead, she has a gelatinous figure, usually encased in orange polyester. She avoids basketball players. From their perspective, she must look like a basketball." (page 37)

"There is something about Christmas that requires a rug rat. Little kids make Christmas fun. I wonder if we could rent one for the holidays." (page 70)

"Nothing good ever happens at lunch. The cafeteria is a giant sound stage where they film daily segments of Teenage Humiliation Rituals. And it smells gross. (page 104)

In short, I'm glad that I finally read this book, and I give it my highest recommendation for both teens and adults, male and female.

Book: Speak
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (though I read a Penguin Platinum reprint edition)
Original Publication Date: October 1999
Pages: 198
Age Range: 14 and up
Source of Book: Bought it.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.