I’ve been looking at some young-adult titles recently as I’ve been filling out the “Every Book on this Rack is Better than 50 Shades of Grey” bookrack in my classroom with a mix of adult and young-adult titles (my students tend to be in their late teens and early 20s). I’d heard quite a bit over the years about Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak so decided this was a good chance to pick it up, read it, and add it to my classroom collection.
Speak is a simple but powerful novel about a high-school student who was raped by a fellow student at a party. The reader doesn’t actually find out that this is what happened until partway through the book: we only know that Melinda has suffered a traumatic experience that has left her depressed, withdrawn, and feeling like an outsider among her peers. Her parents are extremely detached and unhelpful (more than I’d expect such otherwise apparently decent people to be in the face of an obviously distressed teenager, but of course the story is told from Melinda’s point of view and we see only what she sees of her parents’ behavior), and only one teacher at school is at all helpful or sympathetic. Melinda can’t speak about what happened to her: her struggle to get to the point where she can finally begin to tell her story and start to recover is the story of the book, which covers one year in her high school experience. It’s a vivid, real, moving portrayal of a depressed and traumatized teenager, and I think a lot of readers, not just rape victims, would be able to relate to Melinda’s feelings of isolation and her inability to trust anyone. She’s a narrator who draws the reader into her story even while making us aware there are parts of the story she finds hard to tell.
Speak definitely deserves its position as a modern classic of YA literature, and like all good YA, transcends those boundaries by simply being a good, highly readable book about an important subject.