My 15 year old daughter rates this book as one of the best books she has ever read. Of my 3 children, Mandy is my reader. She has always enjoyed books, and very often will read her favorites more than once. She read this book about 2 years ago and at the time I thought, “Well, it must be a good teen book.” That was in my pre-blog days. That was when I was ignorant of YA literature in the 21st Century. That was before I dared to read YA literature for myself.
The author, Laurie Halse Anderson, has received a lot of accolades this spring with her newest release, Wintergirls. While waiting for my turn for this book at the local library (I believe I began as number 75 in line back in March), I thought I would read Speak, which is now touted as “a contemporary classic” All I can say is WOW! I was immediately transported back in time to my high school days — not necessarily a place that I ever wanted to revisit, but as a parent, a place that I needed to revisit.
Here is a quick plot summary according to GoodReads.com:
Since the beginning of the school year, high school freshman Melinda has found that it’s been getting harder and harder for her to speak out loud: “My throat is always sore, my lips raw…. Every time I try to talk to my parents or a teacher, I sputter or freeze…. It’s like I have some kind of spastic laryngitis.” What could have caused Melinda to suddenly fall mute? Could it be due to the fact that no one at school is speaking to her because she called the cops and got everyone busted at the seniors’ big end-of-summer party? Or maybe it’s because her parents’ only form of communication is Post-It notes written on their way out the door to their nine-to-whenever jobs. While Melinda is bothered by these things, deep down she knows the real reason why she’s been struck mute…
Laurie Halse Anderson’s first novel is a stunning and sympathetic tribute to the teenage outcast. The triumphant ending, in which Melinda finds her voice, is cause for cheering (while many readers might also shed a tear or two). After reading Speak, it will be hard for any teen to look at the class scapegoat again without a measure of compassion and understanding for that person–who may be screaming beneath the silence. (Ages 13 and older) —Jennifer Hubert
They say that growing up today is totally different than it was when we were younger. I do agree with that statement, to a certain extent. I don’t remember worrying about being gunned down in the hallway by a fellow student, but I do remember being intimidated and embarrassed by the jock crowd. I don’t remember fearing for my life, but I do remember wishing I could crawl in a hole and disappear for 3 years of my life. And yet, so much of what I read in this book was completely reminiscent of emotions and feelings that I experienced in school. How does Ms. Anderson do it?! I mean, she is only two years younger than me (I did a bit of research on the internet), and yet she was so capable of recalling those distant memories as if she just recently experienced them. Let me see if I can give you just a few examples:
The First Ten Lies they tell you in high school:
- We are here to help you.
- You will have enough time to get to your class before the bell rings.
- The dress code will be enforced.
- No smoking is allowed on school grounds.
- Our football team will win the championship this year.
- We expect more of you here.
- Guidance counselors are always available to listen.
- Your schedule was created with your needs in mind.
- Your locker combination is private.
- These will be the years you look back on fondly.
or…there is the Ten More Lies they tell you in high school:
- You will use algebra in your adult lives.
- Driving to school is a privilege that can be taken away.
- Students must stay on campus for lunch.
- The new textbooks will arrive any day now.
- Colleges care about more than your SAT scores.
- We are enforcing the dress code.
- We will figure out how to turn off the heat soon.
- Our bus drivers are highly trained professionals
- There is nothing wrong with summer school.
- We want to hear what you have to say.
While I am not sure I agree with 20 out of 20 here — I most definitely agree with about 15 of those (including the one about dress code being listed twice).
Ms. Anderson also creates a list of all the cliques in this Syracuse, NY high school, which honestly, has not changed much in the past 3 decades when I was in a CT high school:
….ninth-graders are herded into the auditorium. We fall into clans: Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, Human Waste, Eruotrash, Future Fascists of America, Big Hair Chix, the Marthas, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, Shredders. I am clanless. ….. I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don’t have anyone to sit with.
I am Outcast.
I remember reading an interview with Markus Zusak (author of The Book Thief) where he said: “I like the idea that every page in a book can have a gem on it.” This is exactly what Laurie Halse Anderson does in writing Speak. I am sure that I could turn to any random page in the book and find some “gem” from which I could read, re-read, analyze and relive my adolescence. I do not wish to post all of them in this short review (as I think you simply must go out and read this book for yourself), but I will leave you with one thought that is true for people of all ages. These words of wisdom are being said to Melinda, our 9th grade protagonist, by her art teacher, Mr. Freeman:
Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar. It makes you gag……Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage – whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling. When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside – walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It’s the saddest thing I know.” (page 122)
Is that not powerful?! And the entire book is full of such insightful thoughts and expressions, some from adults, but most from Melinda’s perspective.
If you have a teen – or a child nearing the turbulent adolescent years, you simply must do yourself the favor of reading this book. Not all our children will experience the traumatic event that Melinda had to endure, but I guarantee that all teens experience trauma. We, as parents, must walk a very fine line. We must know when to give them their space, and when to interfere and encourage them to speak. We must promise to listen – really hear what they are saying. We must offer compassion, but not trite answers. As the saying goes “a child does not care how much you know until you show them how much you care.”