It’s Melinda’s first day of ninth grade, and she’s alone. Her friends from previous school years have all abandoned her and disbursed into their own cliques. People whisper about her behind her back (and sometimes right in front of her) because she’s the one who called the cops on the night of the big party over the summer—the night when the thing happened that Melinda cannot speak about.
Melinda spends the school year in silence, speaking so little that her throat becomes scratchy. The only person she’s able to make friends with is a new girl who hasn’t found a clique yet, and the only teacher who gives her any encouragement is her art teacher. Just about her only forms of self-expression are in the trees she attempts to draw and carve for art class and the unused janitor’s closet that she decorates with a poster of Maya Angelou and other items that make her feel safe when she retreats into the closet and away from the world.
When I read young adult literature, I usually expect a good story with interesting characters. Artfully done prose is not, in my limited experience, a hallmark of these kinds of books. And that’s fine; a well-crafted storyline and compelling characters really are sufficient. But, after reading Hush by Jacqueline Woodson last week and Speak this week, I’m realizing that young adult fiction need not be just straightforward storytelling. Both Woodson and Anderson tell their stories using vivid language and prose styles that make their books something extra special.
Melinda is the first person narrator in Speak, and Anderson gives her a distinctive voice that blends observational, snarky humor with melancholy reflection. Here, for example, Melinda comments on lunchtime in her school’s cafeteria:
There is a sprinkling of losers like me scattered among the happy teenagers, prunes in the oatmeal of school. The others have the social power to sit with other losers. I’m the only one sitting along, under the glowing neon sign which reads, “Complete and Total Loser, Not Quite Sane. Stay Away. Do Not Feed.”
The situation Melinda is in goes beyond just being a social outcast. The thing that happened to her over the summer, the thing that she won’t even allow herself to remember, has left her desperate and frightened and in need of help. But she cannot think about it, much less tell anyone. As long as she is silent, she won’t have to deal with the horror of it. (I am being deliberately coy about what happened only because the book itself is coy about it; it’s fairly clear early on what has happened, but Melinda herself doesn’t think through the events until the midpoint of the book.)
Melinda’s silence keeps her from getting the help she needs, but it also puts up a barrier between her and her parents, her teachers, her former friends. Most seem to write her off as a trouble-maker or a weirdo instead of trying to get to the bottom of her silence. I think this aspect of Speak makes it an important book not just for teens, but also for adults. I don’t work with teenagers myself anymore, but I do remember kids from my brief career as a high school teacher who might very well have been silent—or acting out—for reasons that weren’t just about making trouble or being lazy.
Melinda, having just started high school, was surrounded by adults who didn’t remember the girl she was the previous year. They didn’t know there had been a change. Melinda’s parents were too caught up in their own jobs and marital issues to be able to really take the situation seriously. But Melinda herself was too young and inexperienced to know how to speak for herself. She needed more encouragement than she got.
Although much of this book is upsetting, Anderson tempers the grimness with Melinda’s acerbic wit. And as the book draws to a close, Melinda finds ways to communicate. There’s one glorious moment in a bathroom stall when Melinda, with one small act of sharing, discovers that she has empowered dozens of other girls to speak. That moment made me feel like shouting for joy. For it is through speaking up about injustice, abuse, and violence that we find our power.
This was my first book by Laurie Halse Anderson, but it probably won’t be my last. I’m pleased to have found her.
See other reviews at Things Mean a Lot, Reviews by Lola’s Blog, Boarding in My Forties, At Home with Books, Fizzy Thoughts, Books on the Brain, Book Addiction, The Lit Connection, The Zen Leaf, Trish’s Reading Nook