What self-respecting aficionado of young adult literature hasn't read Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson? I am embarrassed to admit that person was me, until yesterday. Thanks to the suggestion of my co-worker, I will no longer be ducking my head when (if?) people ask me my opinion of the multiple-award winning, high school curriculum mainstay that has more than 1,000 user reviews on Amazon. Fourteen year-old Melinda begins ninth grade labeled as the social outcast who called the cops on the party of the summer and got a bunch of kids in trouble. She called 911 because she was raped by a popular senior guy, but no one else knows that, and she finds herself unable to verbalize the truth. As one might divine from the title, voicelessness and lack of agency are key themes of Speak, which follows Melinda through the course of her school year as she spirals into depression, loses interest in school, and finally turns it around and begins living again.
As Anderson mentions in the supplementary materials available in the Platinum Edition, the book is as much about depression as it is about rape; Melinda's battles--carried out in her mind and on her body--are bitter and intense, conveyed through an intimate first-person narrative. This could be the story of any ostracized teenager, and it probably plays out more often in real life than any adult would care to admit. I'm still not sure what I think of the novel's climactic scene (spoiler alert) between Melinda and her rapist. On the one hand, it allows the reader to experience first-hand the trauma of assault that has, until this point, been largely suppressed by Melinda. It gives her the chance to seize agency and, in this second encounter, emerge relatively unscathed. However, I'm not sure the scene itself was necessary--Melinda had already acted to protect her former best friend, and it was clear that she had been finding her voice through the tree-creation metaphor. Having Melinda fight Andy off allows her to receive some vindication in the eyes of her fellow students, however, and maybe that's more important to the reader than a (perhaps more realistic) ending in which he goes off to college scot free. Either way, if books like Speak can help young adults engage in a dialogue about difficult subjects like rape, depression, and social ostracism, we'll probably all end up better off.
Links: Laurie Halse Anderson's website. An Interview with Anderson by School Library Journal.