Allison's Book Bag

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Posted on: September 18, 2011

My review selection for this week was recommended to me by Zin Kenter: “I have two Young Adult books I love very much although…. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is for high school age and has a graphic scene but it is very powerful…. the book is wonderful, it has a voice that I love, very restrained, humorous at times, sad. It also shows how art can help recovery.”

Why? This question ran through my mind as I read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. For example, why did Anderson portray her main character Melinda as a sarcastic and therefore sometimes unlikeable teenager? Or, why did Anderson keep readers in the dark until partway through her novel about the incident that changed Melinda’s life? Now that I’ve finished reading Speak, I agree with Anderson’s choices but have yet another question. How did Anderson write so smartly about teenagers and high school, while also being timeless? Speak was published in 1999, but it pulled me back to the 1980’s. Despite the lack of references to cell phones and IPods, I think my adolescent siblings will also find themselves in its pages. Speak is a problem-centered novel, which contains enough depth to also be simply good fiction.

For about half of Speak, I didn’t know whether to like or dislike Melinda. Near the start of a new school, her only friend announces that the two of them must plan goals. Her friend draws four boxes, one for each marking period, and then writes “Goals” in each box. What is Melinda’s goal? “To go home and take a nap.” As the year progresses, Melinda starts skipping classes and blowing off homework. Even though I quickly realized that Melinda’s misbehaviors were arising from depression, her apathy and bitterness make her sometimes unpleasant. Melinda refers to all of her teachers except her art instructor by labels rather than their names. Despite once being a good student, Melinda makes this quip about social studies: “Who knew there had been a war with the whole world?” In the same vein, while Melinda apparently used to have lots of popular friends, she now has negative things to say about most everyone. At the same time, Melinda is achingly vulnerable; she describes herself as having the wrong hair, wrong clothes, and wrong attitude. It’s difficult to dislike someone who is so insecure. Melinda is starkly honest. She admits that she could better handle Nicole’s popularity if Nicole were a bitch, because then she could hate her. Melinda is also surprisingly perceptive. When Valentine’s Day rolls around, she notes that in middle school it was “easier to floss with barbed wire than admit you like someone” whereas in high school kids kiss right in front of everyone. If I’d been as savvy as her in high school, maybe I’d have gotten hurt less. When Melinda eventually starts tackling her problems, she shows herself capable of helping her parents, taking an interest in school, and even of being thoughtful of her peers. If it weren’t for her depression, perhaps Melinda could be a pretty nice kid.

The problem is that for about half of Speak, I don’t understand how Melinda became this way. She used to have friends, but now for some reason they all hate her. They glare at her, give her the silent treatment, and refuse to sit next to her. When Melinda finds a forgotten janitorial closet that like her has no purpose or name, she decides that it would make the a perfect hiding spot. Melinda even figures her parents would have been divorced by now if she hadn’t been born. After all, she is not pretty, smart, or athletic, but just another “ordinary drone like them dressed in secrets and lies”. All this self-pity could become nauseating, given that we don’t know the reason for it, except there are all of Melinda’s memories about the better times. She describes a previous Halloween when her circle of friends all dressed up as witches. There are even funny moments in the present, such as when her dad talks to a turkey hotline lady, makes a turkey soup, and eventually tosses dumps the failed meal in the trash and orders  pizza. When Melinda lets down her guard, there are also some very sweet moments when she finds she is not completely alone.

Laurie Halse Anderson, Cherokee High School Visit

Image by theunquietlibrarian via Flickr

I was surprised to learn that Speak was Anderson’s first book. In less capable hands, Speak could have mired in negativity. I have seen this happen in far too many other young adult novels. Or it could have turned into a self-help book guised as fiction. I have seen this happen in many television movies. Instead through Melinda’s commentaries on high school life, we see Melinda evolve not just as person dealing with a problem, but also as an adolescent learning the repercussions of speaking up but also of staying silent. In less capable hands, Speak could also have failed to deliver a satisfying end to the mystery running throughout it about what happened to Melinda. Anderson deftly depicts Melinda’s descent into mental hell through her struggles in art class. Melinda’s art teacher Mr. Freeman gives each student a piece of paper with the name of an object, which they’ll spend the rest of the year trying to turn into art. Melinda picks: tree. At first she wants to throw it back, thinking it is too easy. She isn’t allowed. As the year progresses, she finds that expressing her emotions through a tree is incredibly difficult. Through this symbolism, Speak shows the journey that Melinda takes in trying to repress and then later reveal of an event that happened to one night.

Speak is a well-crafted. Anderson undertook the challenge of introducing a disenfranchised teenager and convincing readers to like her. How much easier that challenge would have been if Anderson had revealed from the start what had happened to Melinda. Anderson also undertook the challenge of revealing details about the events of that August night, only as Melinda was ready to deal with them. How much easier Anderson’s challenge would have been if she’d simply told a straightforward story about how Melinda came to terms with the fact that bad things can happen. That she instead took the higher road, readers are blessed with a complex and richly textured story that is still applauded over ten years after its publication. Anderson is still writing problem novels. One day I’ll return with a round-up of them, for Speak is an impressive introduction to her writings.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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