In A Nutshell
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Ahhh, high school.
It's the best of times; it's the worst of times…actually, mostly it's just the worst of times, and nearly all of these times are demonstrated in Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.
While most kids are dealing with acne, really bad crushes, mean teachers, and jammed lockers, Melinda Sordino has all of these problems—plus one more. Pretty much every single person at her new high school thinks she is the worst because a call she made to the cops ended up breaking up a big party where all the popular kids were having the time of their lives. Ouch. Not the best way to make friends.
Sometimes this book can be hard to read—not because of freakishly long words or super weird concepts, but because the issues Anderson tackles can be pretty hard to stomach, even for the most seasoned-roller coaster enthusiast.
In an interview, Anderson talks about how Melinda was created: One night, Anderson woke to the sound of "a girl sobbing." She thought it was one of her daughters—but no. They were safe and sleeping. Anderson realized "The crying girl [was] in my head, a bad dream." Like readers of Speak, Anderson didn't know right away why Melinda was upset. Anderson says, "It wasn't until [Melinda] was comfortable with me that she let her secret out" ("Laurie Halse Anderson speaks about SPEAK" in Speak: 10th Anniversary Edition). (For fun, compare this to the story of how Stephenie Meyer got the idea for Twilight.)
Anderson's work with young people doesn't stop with writing stories—she also writes back to her fans. She's a frequent speaker, and listener, at high schools and other places young people congregate. She's very vocal about the rights of young adults to read literature about sensitive topics. Believe it or not, an Indiana English teacher called Speak "pornography" in 1999. You can read about how Anderson and her supporters deal with the accusation on Anderson's blog.
Why Should I Care?
Think this book is unrealistic? Think again.
Just because people don't speak about rape and other abuses doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Laurie Halse Anderson got so much mail about Speak that she wrote a poem called "Listen," incorporating bits of letters from readers. Here's a sample:
I was raped, too
sexually assaulted in seventh
tenth grade, the summer after
at a party
i was 16
i was 14
i was 5 and he did it for three
i loved him
i didn't even know him.
He was my best friend's brother,
my grandfather, father, mommy's
i met him for the first time that
night and —
four guys took turns, and —
i'm a boy and this happened to
me, and —
(You can read the full poem, and watch Anderson read "Listen," here.)
Like Melinda Sordino, star of the novel, many of these readers suffered a trauma that isolates them from others. Maybe you have experienced this. Maybe you know someone who has. Maybe someone you know has suffered a similar trauma but hasn't confided in you. Through Speak, Anderson encourages victims to speak out about their experiences, and her novel is a way of helping students, teachers, parents, and everyone else have open, frank discussions about rape. We think that's an important reason to care.
Another reason to care is that, though Speak is about opening up discussion, some people would rather shut it down. In 2010, a Missouri State University associate professor named Wesley Scroggins called Speak "soft pornography" and argued that it should be banned from the local public school (source). In our opinion, a story like Anderson's should be shared, not censored.
But that's just us. What do you think?