I recently re-read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a book I read for the first time in middle school. Perhaps one of the darkest books I read during that time, it was also one of the most moving. I loved it then and, upon revisiting it, I love it again now. But I appreciated it in different ways each time. So on this Reviewsday Tuesday, I want to talk about my two different experiences of the same book.
For context, here is a one-sentence synopsis of the story I found on Wikipedia: Speak, published in 1999, is Laurie Halse Anderson’s young adult novel that tells the story of Melinda Sordino’s rape, recovery, and confession.
I wasted the last weeks of August watching bad cartoons. I didn’t go to the mall, the lake, or the pool, or answer the phone. I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don’t have anyone to sit with.
I am Outcast.
– Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
I loved this book in middle school because of the way it explores ostracization. I felt deeply for Melinda and the way in which she was treated by her peers. The pain of social exclusion and the petty cruelty of ones peers can, at the awkward and inexperienced stage of life that is middle school, be tormenting – even without the added trauma experienced by Melinda. Her loneliness and inability to reach out was something I found credible, relatable, and provoking of the deepest empathy towards her. I became absolutely invested in her as a character. At a time when I was devouring books at the speed of (at least) one or two a week, that sort of commitment to a character was rare. It’s very likely why I have repeatedly thought about that story in the decade between when I discovered it and this year.
Why I love it now
I know my head isn’t screwed on straight. I want to leave, transfer, warp myself to another galaxy. I want to confess everything, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to someone else. There is a beast in my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, staining me. My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them.
– Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak
I love this book now because of the sensitivity and skill with which Andersen explores the process of coping with trauma – of surviving it, of processing it, and of trying to reach out for support in recovering from it. The exploration of silence and withdrawal despite a desire for communication and reaching out is one which I noticed but failed to fully appreciate when I first read it. The fact that silence and inability to take any positive action to prevent the adversity directed at her is not an indicator of mere passivity or acquiescence on Melinda’s part is something I did not fully grasp at the time. What seems obvious upon reading it as an adult with the benefit of years of experience exploring literary devices and methods simply could not strike me the same way at age 14. This is not to say it was ineffective – it is rather to say that I did not completely realize the way in which the theme of silence interacted with the title and topic of the story.
Why it matters
I have written before about the importance of not banning YA literature which contains troubling or problematic material, be it in the form of dark subject matter, explicit scenes or depictions of teenagers misbehaving. Speak has, predictably enough, also been subjected to challenges in schools. Yet my experience of it as a teenager reading it on my own was not to be traumatized, upset, or in some way negatively influenced by it. It was one of the most moving books I read at that age and I never forgot about it. I can’t help but think how much more I would have appreciated it had I been able to benefit from the guidance of a teacher capable of pointing out the themes and literary devices that passed me by until I came back to it this year.
Regardless of the context in which it is read, however, I think it goes without saying that I wholeheartedly recommend this book to young adult and adults equally. It pairs well with cozy reading spaces and mugs of hot tea. Maybe have some tissues on hand, just in case. In fact, definitely have some tissues on hand.