Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak
June 9, 2011, 7:17 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, YA Lit | Tags: , , , , , ,

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is advertised as a classic of young adult fiction, but it’s one that only came to my attention about six months ago despite its 1999 publication date and my occasional enthusiastic forays into the young adult section of the library. This was an interesting time to read the book, given the recent Wall Street Journal piece declaiming against violence, sex and foul language in current young adult fiction.

Anderson’s book, although frequently banned, isn’t “offensive” in the way the WSJ piece suggests so much contemporary YA fiction is. Anderson deals with what my fifteen-year-old self would label some “heavy issues,” but she does so by exploring her narrator Melinda’s reactions to the events that shape her school year rather than the violence itself. Her novel is, literally, about a girl who refuses to speak, a girl who sees no way of expressing what has happened to her and finds herself abandoned by her friends, shunned by nearly everyone at her school, because what happened to her and what she did afterwards were so misunderstood.

Anderson’s prose is occasionally clumsy, as when she describes one teacher having a “[n]ose like a credit card sunk between his eyes” (10), but obscuring that fault is her skill at describing high school (“Every year they say we’re going to get right up to the present, but we always get stuck in the Industrial Revolution… We need more holidays to keep the social studies teachers on track” [7]), the cruelties of teenage girls (as when Melinda’s one remaining friend, a student new to the high school, matter-of-factly friend dumps her at lunch), and the mind of a student verging on collapse. Melinda is the sort of person, the sort of character, we shy from in life and fiction for the ways in which she refuses to simply “deal” with her issues or reshape herself into the sort of socially acceptable girl she was before the summer leading up to her ninth grade year. Anderson is unflinching in her portrayal of the character.

More than that, Anderson has given us a character who is not only nearly mute when dealing with those in her world, but one who is not capable of admitting to herself what has happened until halfway through Speak. Until that point the reader is left knowing only that something happened over the summer to define Melinda’s year, and her depression, her reluctance to speak and her fear of approaching old friends, are difficult to understand until Melinda herself thinks of herself in terms of “shame.” Melinda does, of course, eventually reveal to herself, to the reader, to one of her friends, what has happened to her, but even then it seems uncertain that she’ll pull herself out of the depression that for the school year has seen her sleeping through whole afternoons and skipping as many classes as she attends.

Anderson’s book should be required reading for teens, not just for the issues it examines but for giving a voice to the sort of high school student it is often easiest to ignore. Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal piece has to say on some other young adult offerings, Anderson deals with sex and violence and depression in an adult fashion, showing what Melinda’s life has become as the result of both what happened to her and her shame over what happened to her, but without glorifying the idea of being a down and out teenager.

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I read this in high school and loved it, and somehow assumed that nobody else knew anything about it until I got into the world of book blogging. What’s nice about it is that is addresses issues beyond rape – just transitioning between schools can be traumatic. It reminded me of my own transition from elementary school to middle school – though within the same school system and without a violent incident, it was a rough time for me as groups of friends evolved and I found myself the odd one out. Having multiple ways of being approached is probably part of what made Speak so powerful to me.

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

I liked that too. Even though I don’t have any experiences like Melinda’s, while I was reading it I imagined my high school self would have found a lot to identify with in her character. Even now I do.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Very nice review! I can’t say I’m a huge fan of YA lit but I did like this one and I do worry that books like this will be ignored because of this generalization that all YA is offensive. I’m sure some is offensive. I’m sure of it is badly written crap too. But that’s going to be the case with any sort of writing, no reason to focus there.

When I heard this book was about a teen rape I was hesitant to read it. I wouldn’t have picked this up if I didn’t get the book for free because I was afraid the book would focus on the more violent and graphic aspects of the rape. Very happy to see it doesn’t and it was a very good book, one that I think would be especially good for teens.

Comment by Alley

I probably wouldn’t have read this if it hadn’t been at the peace corps library…I find it hard to imagine I would’ve found it or picked it up otherwise. I’m glad that I did.

Like you say, there’s bad and offensive literature everywhere; I think the author of the WSJ article failed, in a huge way, by lumping all YA lit into one category of offensiveness, rather than noting that there are ya books that deal thoughtfully with some of the issues mentioned in the piece.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Excellent review, and I absolutely agree: this should be required reading.

Comment by nymethth

i agree that Speak picks up teen issues in a very adult manner. it doesn’t skirt issues or use dark characterized metaphors to discuss very real issues facing teens today. i’m so glad to see the blogging community picking up where that WSJ article went tastray to make sure there are other voices heard regarding YA lit.

Comment by lisa

Yeah, SPEAK! Way to give this book its due!

Comment by Books are my Boyfriends

I’m yet to read this, but have heard nothing but good about it from bloggers. I’ve seen a short video of the author reading a poem which is composed of excerpts from teens who wrote to her to let her know how much Speak helped them. It’s really beautiful – I cried :-) If you look it up on you tube – Laurie Anderson Speak Poem you can find a few versions of it.

Comment by mummazappa

[…] (06/10/11) Barbara Kingsolver, ed. – The Best American Short Stories 2001 (06/05/11) Laurie Halse Anderson – Speak (06/05/11) Tom Robbins – Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (06/05/11) Charles C. Mann – 1491 […]

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This book looks at a very real problem and deals with it in a very real way. Thus this subject matter is made appropriate for the grade level through the way it is written about and the conversations it than creates. Speak is the most true to life book I have found on this subject matter at any readability or grade level and I highly recommend it to anyone who can deal with an honest portrayal of a horrible occurrence.

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