“Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson is one of those books that some adults believe their children would be better off avoiding. Often adults seek to restrict what teens and children read; they believe minors need to be protected from something. While parents have every right to decide what is appropriate reading material for their own children, it becomes censorship when those restrictions are placed on children not in their care. Banned Book Week takes place every year to bring attention to censorship and the freedom to read.
Although “Speak” does deal with an ugly subject, it is often by reading about and discussing ugly and painful circumstances that healing begins to take place. Some would rather ignore the facts of what happens when teens begin to live lives separate from their parents. However, ignoring the truth and neglecting to warn kids about the dangers they may encounter only makes the situation worse.
Melinda is the main character in this teen novel that was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. It is from her point of view the story is told in first-person narrative. She is only child of parents who work too hard and who don’t really pay attention to their daughter. She is a freshman in high school and before she started taking classes at Merryweather High, she had plenty of friends. But something happened at the end of the summer to change everything.
Melinda and her best friend Rachel were at a party with older kids and there was plenty of beer. Before she knew it she was in the woods with a cute older boy and things were happening she didn’t want to happen. The next thing she remembers is standing in a kitchen calling 9-1-1. Before the police could find out who had made the call, Melinda had made her way home to an empty house. She never said another word about it.
As Melinda makes her way through her first year of high school – a big transition and difficult time for many teens – she feels deserted by the people she used to do everything with. No one will speak to her because they know she is the one who called the cops. Her parents are too busy to listen and what would she say to them anyway? Instead of finding someone, anyone, to tell her troubles to, Melinda grows more and more distant and soon she is barely even talking. Not to the people on the bus, not to her parents, not to classmates, no one. Her grades plummet, she cuts classes and feels completely lost.
The only one Melinda sort of feels any kinship with is her art teacher. At the beginning of the school year he has each student take a piece of paper from inside a broken globe. On that piece of paper is written one word; that word represents what the student will focus on for the entire school year. The student will sketch, sculpt, paint what that word represents. Melinda chooses the word “tree.”
This book is about a painful subject; teen rape is never an easy topic to discuss. It’s even worse for those that have experienced it. Melinda represents the thousands of girls that are forcibly raped or coerced into sexual activity every day. Each person handles a traumatic situation like that differently. Some have the tools and encouragement to seek help right away. Others, like Melinda, feel shut off from the rest of the world with no place to turn.
Most parents would rather not think of something so terrible happening to their child. However, refusing to allow them to read a book on the subject won’t make the danger go away. Talking openly with adolescents and older teens, both boys and girls, is one way to help them stay safe. They need to know how to protect themselves and where to seek help should they need. it.
Laurie Halse Anderson captures the social atmosphere of high school with its cliques to a tee. Melinda is a well-drawn character that could be attending any high school across America. One male student reviewer said
Hi, I’m an actual teenager. This book was horrible, reading it hurt me, the character were dry, and it wasn’t written by a teenager, it was written how an adult thinks a teenager acts. [sic]
However, this Examiner reviewer was once a teen girl and she will tell you, this is how teens act. They are sometimes incredibly cruel to one another and sometimes they can be incredibly kind. This reviewer is also the mother of two daughters and one son; all three recently entered their 20s and will tell you, they have seen similar situations in their high school. Perhaps the male student who read this book just couldn’t relate, and that’s okay.
Whether teens read this book alone or with parents or adults choose to read it on their own, it’s a story worth experiencing. It’s not graphic, there aren’t curse words and the story is handled very maturely. Of the thousands of books that fill library shelves, there are plenty of books parents should be concerned about their children reading. This isn’t one of them.
“Speak” was also made into a feature-length film starring Kristen Stewart, of “Twilight” fame. It was directed by Jessica Sharzer and was released in 2004. It also starred Elizabeth Perkins, D.B. Sweeney, Eric Lively and Steve Zahn.
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