Anderson, L. H. (2011). Speak. New York, NY: Square Fish.
A teenage girl begins high school after calling the cops at a party thrown by her classmates over the summer. She is ostracized and obviously withdrawn and depressed. As she moves through the year, we discover she called the police because she had been raped at the party. Throughout the school year, she makes and loses a friend and becomes close to her art teacher who imparts a great lesson on expression–something she hadn’t experienced most of the year because she feels unable, unwilling, or as if it is pointless to speak. She slowly gains personal strength and confidence until a sudden twist of events at the end of the year turns her life around.
The characters in this novel are extremely relatable and those you would likely see in any high school. Their relationships are realistic and fluid, their observances sound spot on what a teenager would say. For example, the “first ten lies they tell you in high school” and her witty observation that “It’s easier to floss with barbed wire than admit you like someone in middle school” are exactly what a teenager version of me would write in her diary. The main character’s struggle is authentic to her age; she fights against expressing her pain but fears what others will think of her while not being self-aware enough to get to the real root of her problem.
Sexual violence and harassment remain a difficult and all too common issue for teens to face, and this novel addresses those issues in a very sincere fashion. It does not sugar coat how depressed she becomes after the attack or the terror she feels at facing her attacker at school. It doesn’t spare the reader’s feelings but seeks to elicit an honest response to such a trying time in her life. The events in the story are spurred by this realism and by her reaction to what life has thrown at her. The ending, however, seems rushed as if the author wished to tie up the loose ends and leave us with a happy ending wrapped in a neat bow. While her actions, by this point in her emotional journey, are believable, the situation that she is thrown into feels forced and too contrived.
The running theme tying the story together is obvious expression. Her trauma has caused her to withdraw from others for fear of judgement, reprisal, or a fear of speaking the words out loud and forcing herself to confront what happened to her at the party. Her silence stifles her social life, family life, schoolwork, emotional growth, and her art. She doesn’t want to confront it; she wants to escape what happened rather than speak it aloud and make it more real. SO, she tries to find other means of escape when silence isn’t enough. We see this as depression takes ahold of her and saps her energy–“I just want to sleep. A coma would be nice. Or amnesia. Anything, just to get rid of this, these thoughts, whispers in my mind. Did he rape my head, too?”
It is only when her art teacher speaks the main truth of the novel (“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time.”) that we begin to realize that is what we are witnessing. She is dying. She has withdrawn so much from others and herself that she might as well be dead. Expression is what turns everything around. She finds a strength within herself that so many teenagers will relate to, that so many are searching for, at the end of the novel. Only after freeing herself is she able to overcome that horrible night and begin to move forward.
From Publisher’s Weekly: “In a stunning first novel, Anderson uses keen observations and vivid imagery to pull readers into the head of an isolated teenager.… the book’s overall gritty realism and Melinda’s hard-won metamorphosis will leave readers touched and inspired.”
From School Library Journal: “This powerful novel deals with a difficult yet important topic-rape… Melinda’s pain is palpable, and readers will totally empathize with her. This is a compelling book, with sharp, crisp writing that draws readers in, engulfing them in the story.”
-Pair with other books about mental health in high school:
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Impulse by Ellen Hopkins
My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga
-Pair with other teen reads about sexual assault:
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Some Boys by Patty Blount
All the Rage by Courtney Summers
Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens
Hopeless by Colleen Hoover
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill