Halse Anderson, Laurie. Speak. Farrar Strus Giroux, 1999. 197 pages. Tr. $15.34, ISBN 978-0-374-37152-4
Plot: Melinda Sordino begins her first day of high school as an outcast – her best friend, Rachel, won’t speak to her and everyone seems to despise her. The cause is complicated: Melinda broke up a party during the summer by calling the police, but she never explained why she did it. A party destroyer and a snitch, Melinda is the school’s new untouchable.
She tells the story in the form of a diary and there is clearly something wrong, but she won’t speak about it and she won’t even write about it. At first, Melinda responds to the double trauma by turning inward – she despises mirrors, burrows down in her bedroom, and even creates a bunker at school, setting up a closet as her space to hide.
The center of the issue is Andy, a.k.a. “IT,” and Melinda is clearly terrified of him. As what happened that horrible night is finally recounted (the healing process helped along by an iconoclastic art teacher and an intellectual friend), Melinda is forced to fight back and attempt to find her voice.
Critical Evaluation: Weaving together elements of the classics with some fairy tale symbolism, Laurie Halse Anderson re-envisions high school as a place of endless trials (and occasional triumphs). Driving the book is the narrator’s voice; Melinda, acerbic, shocked, funny, and wounded, is a fully realized character. Her reactions to her Post Traumatic Stress are completely believable as are the characters who help her heal (who in high school didn’t have one unique teacher who made the day somewhat worthwhile?). The fact that she is helped along by expressing herself through art is also believable.
By taking some of our ancient fears – the shapeshifter (aka backstabbing friend), the bogeyman in the closet (Andy) and the all-seeing mirror on the wall (Melinda, afraid of being seen, must hide it), Halse Anderson makes this novel universal. High school becomes Melinda’s gauntlet, her house of mirrors and her dark forest (an extension of the forest in which she first encountered “IT”/Andy). With this peripatetically unfolding plot – which reveals itself in fits and starts – this book’s conflicts echo some of our longest held fears about fitting in, speaking out, and confronting the beast in the closet.
Reader’s Annotation: One of the first things that Melinda sees on her first day of high school is her “best friend” mouthing “I hate you” at a school assembly. It’s Melinda’s first year of high school and, because of something that happened at a summer party, it already feels like a living nightmare.
Author bio: One of the most famous YA authors, Halse Anderson lives in Oswego County in New York State. She has written picture books and YA historical novels (Forge, Chains) and she wants people to know that her name is pronounced “haltz” not “hal-see.” She has four children and two step-children.
Halse Anderson is known for writing intense books for teens – Catalyst, Twisted, Wintergirls, and Speak (her groundbreaking book) capture extreme emotions and intense situations. She cares deeply for her readers and has included their responses to speak in the book’s anniversary edition.
Genre: Fiction, romance.
Curriculum Ties: California State Standard: Health: Standard 4:
4.1.M Seek help from trusted adults for oneself or a friend with an emotional or social health problem.
4.2.M Discuss healthy ways to respond when you or someone you know is grieving.
Booktalking Ideas: 1) Focus on the idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What someone who has been traumatized would feel like, do?
2) Focus on the isolation and the disappointment of her first year in high school.
3) Focus on her voice – the humor and intense bitterness with which she describes everything she sees.
Reading Level/Interest Age: 14+
Challenge Issues: Rape.
Be familiar with the book’s contents.
Focus on the universality of the themes and the hopeful message about the possibility of healing after trauma.
Challenge response: Anderson has recently been up against some challenges, so she has been vocal. Save her comments and let the author respond to the challenge: http://madwomanintheforest.com/stuck-between-rage-and-compassion/
Focus on the incredible accolades the book has received, including this: http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklistsawards/booklists/bestbooksya/2000top10best
Why Included: This is a breakthrough book that has garnered raves for a decade, including a starred review in School Library Journal.