Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: Speak

Anderson, L. (1999). Speak.  New York, NY: Square Fish.


Laurie Halse Anderson’s book, Speak, is about the social and emotional recovery of a female high school student, Melinda Sordino, after she is raped at a party.  Melinda and her friends go to a party where everyone is drinking alcohol. Melinda steps outside to get some fresh air and then gets seduced, taken away, and raped by an upperclassman named Andy Evans. Melinda calls the police to get help, but everyone thinks she called the police to snitch on the party. Because everyone thinks she reported the party, Melinda is ostracized by her peers and former friends. Throughout the next school year, she carries the pain of her social isolation along with the emotional pain of the rape itself. During this time, she becomes selectively mute and increasingly isolated as she processes her pain.  Her increasingly negative grades and behaviors are interpreted by her parents and teachers as signs of delinquency and mental illness. Through Melinda’s yearlong friendship with David Petrakis and her ongoing art project for Mr. Freeman, she is able to work through her pain and regain her desire to speak. After Melinda sees her former best friend (i.e. Rachel) dating her former rapist (i.e. Andy), Melinda decides it’s time to tell her and others the truth about the reason she called the police at the party: she was raped. In the end, Melinda finds her voice and says, “Let me tell you about it” (198).


Anderson’s book would fit into the category of Contemporary Realistic Fiction.  The book offers a realistic depiction of a narrative that is all-too-true for too many women in high school and college. Within this genre, Speak would be placed into the subcategory of the “problem novel.” It would be considered a problem novel because the story deals with the trauma of rape and the resulting physical and emotional pain of rape.  The story also describes the social isolation that goes with the shame and secrecy of working through the emotional aftermath of rape. While the protagonist is able to overcome her inability to speak up about the rape, she will obviously live with that pain for her entire life. However, by the end of the book, the author leaves the impression that the protagonist has found some emotional healing and renewed social connection. Even though there is still some pain, it is no longer allowed to control her life. Melinda reclaims her life by regaining her voice.

Essential Issues

Anderson’s book focuses on a variety of central issues in the lives of adolescents. First, rape is an unfortunate reality in the lives of all-too-many young women. In fact, 91% of rape victims are female, 25% of college-aged women report experiencing rape since age 14, and 44% of all rape victims of under the age of 18 (US Justice Department). These are significant statistics because they indicate a disturbing pattern in the lives of young women and men. Plus, behind these statistics are real women who are raped and experience pain that is similar to the pain described by Anderson in Speak. The importance of this book is that it would provide an opportunity to discuss the prevalence and impact of sexual assault with students of both genders. For female students, this book could serve not only as a story of warning, but also a story of empowerment since Melinda is able to find her voice at the end. For male students, this book could help them to better understand the long-lasting effects of rape as well as the seriousness of sexual assault. As Anderson discussed in her interview at the end of the book, some boys don’t understand the reason a woman would be so upset about being raped (204). It’s important to help young men to understand the impact of rape so they can act in sexually appropriate and respectful ways. Moreover, this book might also provide a message of hope for young women who have experienced rape themselves. While teacher would need to address this topic carefully, it’s an important issue in the lives of adolescents.  Second, this book explores the issue of parental relationships during the adolescent years. This is often an awkward time when teenagers are split between dependency on their parents and a growing sense of independence. During this stage of life, parents are often seen as sources of love but parents are also seen as hopelessly out-of-touch with life. It can be difficult to know how and when to share something as personal as a sexual assault at any time with one’s parents, but it’s probably especially awkward during adolescence.  Plus, it’s at this point in life when teenagers really begin to see and interpret their parents’ problems. Anderson’s book would help provide an opportunity to discuss these perennial parental issues through Melinda’s relationship with her own parents who are an amalgamation of loving, imperfect, and misunderstanding. Melinda’s parents show love by giving her a charcoal set after they notice her drawing (Anderson, 72), but they also misunderstand her by saying that “suicide is for cowards” (Anderson, 88). These two examples from Melinda’s complicated relationship with her parents highlight the rich content this book would provide for discussing parental relationships with teens. Third, relationships with teachers are another complicated dynamic for teenagers. Like parents, teachers can simultaneously be role models and antiheroes for teens. The teacher-student dynamic could be explored with great nuance with this book. There are three main teachers in Speak. Mr. Neck is a cranky authoritarian, Hairwoman is a withdrawn weirdo, and Mr. Freeman is a neo-hippy muse. Melinda has a very different relationship with each of them. Since these teachers are so different, they provide fodder to discuss the different kinds of teachers and the subsequently different kinds of relationships that students have with different teachers. Most significantly, it would be interesting to discuss the ways in which Mr. Freeman helped Melinda regain her voice through art and then ask students to reflect on the ways in which teachers have been helpful in their own lives.    

Cultural Contexts

Young adult readers of this book would gain insights into the cultural context of being a survivor of sexual assault. The book focuses on the life a young woman who is raped and has to process the pain, shame, and social isolation as a result of that rape. Melinda’s rapist, Andy, starts out as a “gorgeous cover-model guy” and “Greek God” who makes her feel good by flirting with her (134). But then Andy turns out to have a malicious intent: sex at any cost. Despite Melinda’s physical and verbal attempt to stop him, Andy silences and overpowers her. The Greek God now “smells like beer and mean” (Anderson, 135) and after he rapes her he “zips his jeans and smiles” (136). The smile could imply many things: he enjoyed it, he assumed she enjoyed it, he was proud of getting his way, he was glad he raped her, etc. In any case, the smile makes Andy into “IT” – the monster who destroyed a part of Melinda’s life and happiness. Later in the book, Andy even tries to justify the rape after Melinda speaks out: “You know it’s a lie. I never raped anybody. I don’t have to. You wanted it just as bad as I did” (193). This is a common theme in rape culture. The woman is assumed to be guilty of crying foul because of hurt feelings instead of bringing forth a legitimate claim of sexual assault. The assumption is that the woman wanted to have sex but claimed to be raped in order to seek revenge after the guy hurt her feelings. This sexist mindset adds insult to injury to individual women – and it offers a blanket and malicious justification for rape on a societal level. Melinda not only has to deal with the physical and emotional pain from the rape, but she also has to make a serious accusation in a society that is likely to disbelieve her. This book does a good job of describing the difficulty of that task. It’s the reason that Melinda doesn’t speak. She won’t be believed anyway.  So she struggles through the entire next year of school with this secret. And with that secret, she held another secret: she didn’t call the cops on her friends because they were drinking; she called the cops because she’d been raped. But because she kept her secret, everyone in school, including her good friends, think she is an enemy. In one pointed scene, Melinda is at a pep rally and feels the brunt of this social estrangement: “The girl pokes me harder.  ‘Aren’t you the one who called the cops at Kyle’s party at the end of the summer?’ A block of ice freezes our section of the bleachers. Heads snap in my direction with the sound of a hundred paparazzi cameras. I can’t feel my fingers. I shake my head. Another girl chimes in. ‘My brother got arrested at that party. He got fired because of the arrest. I can’t believe you did that. Asshole”’ (28). Unfortunately, there is no way for Melinda to correct this misunderstanding without telling the entire school that she had been raped. This part of the story would help students understand part of the social isolation of being a survivor of rape. It would also help them to understand the how difficult it is for a survivor of rape to make her accusation in a public way. Survivors of rape have to tell police, their parents, and, in Melinda’s case, her entire school about being raped. It’s important to help students understand that it’s difficult, courageous, and important to tell the truth about rape so it doesn’t happen to other people. And that is ultimately what Melinda decides to do. Melinda finally speaks up after working on an art project that helps her process her pain and see her growth (symbolized in the narrative as a tree); befriending a guy who models the power of speaking up and encourages her to do speak up to Mr. Neck (i.e. David Patrakis); and seeing Andy dating her ex-best friend (i.e. Rachel). In the end, Melinda just couldn’t allow Andy to hurt Rachel. Melinda then bravely tells Rachel the truth about why she called the police: Andy raped her (183-185). This is a visceral, realistic scene that would be relatable for students yet also illustrate the courage that it took Melinda to speak up. Another ex-friend, Ivy, listens to Melinda and, most importantly, believes Melinda about the rape (185). After Melinda’s conversations with Rachel and Ivy, the truth gets spread throughout the school. In one of the bathroom stalls, women begin writing the bad experiences they’ve had with Andy. Melinda sees the notes and feels better: “Different pens, different handwriting, conversations between some writers, arrows to longer paragraphs. It’s better than taking out a billboard. I feel like I can fly” (186). It’s at this moment when Melinda begins to regain her good reputation and Andy loses his. At this point in the narrative, students would be able to see justice being served and a silenced woman come to voice. It’s important for students to see success in Melinda’s brave act of speaking up so that other young women who are survivors of rape can be empowered, too. In the end of the book, Andy confronts Melinda in an ugly way yet gets caught by the women’s lacrosse team. The clear implication is that Andy’s days as a secret rapist are over.  From that point on, Melinda gains friends and becomes popular again. Plus she finds healing. In the end, Melinda explains what it’s like to be a survivor of sexual assault: “IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding. Andy Evans raped me in August when I was drunk and too young to know what was happening. It wasn’t my fault. He hurt me. It wasn’t my fault. And I’m not going to let it kill me. I can grow” (198). While this entire book describes the cultural context of being survivor of rape, this paragraph in particular is a helpful way to help students understand the importance of the survival aspect of that context. Growth is possible. It’s hard work, but it’s possible.  


The protagonist in the story, Melinda, is a character to which adolescents could easily connect. She is a typical teenager who has a complex relationship with her parents and teachers. She has faithful friends and gets good grades. But everything changes after she gets raped at a party and then calls the police. She suddenly becomes socially isolated, depressed, and angry. Her internal dialogue about her darker thoughts and feelings is very believable. Students who have faced a really difficult time in life would particularly relate to Melinda. Students who have been raped, struggled with a big secret, experienced depression, etc. may find Melinda to be a kindred spirit. But that doesn’t mean that other students wouldn’t relate to her. Anderson made Melinda so realistic and believable as a character that I think many students would connect with her.  Plus, in the end, Melinda showed great courage and resolve when she spoke out. While this book would be classified a problem novel, the character of Melinda also makes the story about healing and empowerment. Many students like to read a story about overcoming the odds. This is definitely a story about a character who managed to survive and thrive despite the trauma that wounded her.
Melinda’s parents were complex and multidimensional. On one hand, they were loving and supportive of Melinda. Her parents encourage her to improve her grades, they try to get her to talk with them, and they give Melinda a charcoal set as a gift after they noticed her interest in art. On the other hand, they misunderstand her and occasionally make things worse. Melinda’s parents chastise her for not talking more, they yell at her over her grades, and they coldly say “suicide is for cowards” after they notice scratches on her arm (88). In the end, Melinda’s parents are like many parents in young adult literature: they are flawed. But that reflects reality. Parents are going through their own challenges and stages of life. Like all people, parents are imperfect as they navigate the ebbs and flows of life. Their imperfection just makes them all the more believable as characters – especially for teenagers who have complex relationships with their own imperfect parents.
Melinda’s teachers in the story were complex and diverse. As described above, Mr. Neck is a cranky authoritarian, Hairwoman is a withdrawn weirdo, and Mr. Freeman is a neo-hippy muse. Most students would relate to having different experiences and relationships with the different kinds of teachers in their school. Plus, the teachers didn’t remain flat throughout the story. Hairwoman got a haircut and became more outgoing. Mr. Freeman’s neo-hippy mindset allowed him to use his class as more than an academic exercise, which allowed him to help Melinda work through her pain through her art. Mr. Neck, however, did remain more flat but this probably added to the believability of his character. He remains strict throughout the entire book.
Melinda’s friends are also complex. First, David is an exciting character. He successfully stands up to Mr. Neck. This dramatic scene includes him saying the following to Mr. Neck: “The Constitution does not recognize different cases of citizenship based on time spent living in the country. I am a citizen, with the same rights as your son, or you. As a citizen, and as a student, I am protesting the tone of this lesson as racist, intolerant, and xenophobic” (56). This act of speaking up and standing up forces the school to monitor Mr. Neck’s lessons, which subsequently causes David to be a hero to Melinda (68). Later in the story, David encourages Melinda to speak out by saying: “…don’t expect to make a difference unless you speak up for yourself” (159).  Clearly, David is the modeler and encourager of speaking out for Melinda. Second, Heather is outgoing and quickly befriends Melinda after Heather moved to town, but then she de-friends Melinda after she discovers Melinda’s sadness. In fact she says: “You’re the most depressed person I’ve ever met, and excuse me for saying this, but you are no fun to be around and I think you need professional help” (105). Heather, while usually very friendly, ends up abandoning Melinda when she needs a friend the most. Third, Rachel is Melinda’s best friend who turns against her when she thinks Melinda reported the party to the police. It’s understandable that she would get mad at Melinda given the information that she has. However, it seems extreme that she would hold a grudge against someone for so long. It’s also understandable that Rachel wouldn’t believe that her new boyfriend Andy had raped Melinda. While she doesn’t believe Melinda right away, she does end up breaking up with Andy and burning everything he gave to her. So, in the end, Rachel was a complex character who went beyond a stereotypical teenager with an axe to grind.
Andy, the rapist, is a creep. An attractive, popular, and manipulative creep. And because of that complexity, he is a well-sketched character.

Choices, Challenges, and Resolution

Melinda has to wrestle with a variety of difficult choices. First, Melinda has to decide if she’s going to tell the truth about the reason she called the police at the party. Second, Melinda has to decide who she’s going to tell about the rape. Third, Melinda has to decide when she’s going to tell someone about the rape. Fourth, Melinda has to decide if she is going to tell her ex-best friend that her new boyfriend is a rapist. Fifth, Melinda has to decide if she wants to come out of her closet of isolation, despair, secrecy, and shame (literally and metaphorically). Sixth, Melinda has decide if the trees that she is drawing can get better (symbolically representing her own life and healing). Finally, Melinda has to decide to speak.
There is one major, overarching challenge that shows the strength of an adolescent. Melinda dealt with the trauma of rape while also being ostracized by her classmates and friends for calling the police at the party.  She feels angry and hurt because of being raped and she feels angry and hurt for being abandoned by her friends. Yet she knows that her friends have abandoned her because they don’t know the truth about the reason she called the police. So she struggles with whether to speak up about the rape itself while also struggling with whether to tell her friends that she didn’t call the police on them. It was a secret within a secret. And it was holding her in her moratorium of pain, anger, and depression. With the help of Mr. Freeman’s art project and David’s modeling of the importance of speaking up, she was able to begin the healing process and consider the possibility of speaking up about the rape. Then, when she saw Rachel was dating Andy, she summoned the courage to begin speaking out. She couldn’t bear the thought of her ex-best friend being raped, too.
The end of the book featured Melinda speaking up and telling the truth about the events at the party. And from that point on, her tree project (symbolically representing her life and healing) just kept getting better.  She had to remove the dead parts of the tree so that new life could grow (186-188). In the end, Melinda found healing, spoke up, stopped a rapist, and reconnected with her friends. Her assessment of her project summarizes the resolution of the story well: “My tree is definitely breathing…The new growth is the best part” (196).  

Student Appeal

Anderson’s book is a story that adolescents would choose and enjoy for a variety of reasons. First, it talks about a real issue that teenagers experience. Second, the book provides a story of hope and healing after a major trauma. Third, the author uses dialogue and scenarios that seem authentic to the life of teenagers. Fourth, the book would promote conversation about evils of sexual assault and the importance of healthy sexuality. Fifth, the plot is non-linear yet connected enough to be easily followed and understood. For all of these reasons, this book would likely be appealing to many adolescents. My only reservation with giving it a full endorsement of broad student appeal is that I am afraid that some young men would avoid reading it because it’s about “women’s issues.” I hope I am wrong about this last part of my assessment.   

Literary Merit

Laurie Halse Anderson’s book, Speak, has a low lexile rating (i.e. 690) yet manages to be of high interest. Sometimes these books are termed “hi-lo” (i.e. high interest and lower lexile). Hi-lo books are obviously meant for readers who can’t read at their peers’ grade level and/or are reluctant readers. Speak is an excellent example of a hi-lo book for high school students. The story and characters are complex enough to make it realistic, engaging, and relatable, yet not so complex that it’s difficult to understand and follow. Plus, the author uses dialogue and scenarios that are authentic, relevant, and appropriate for a story about a girl who heals from the trauma of rape. These elements make the story life-like and convincing, which helps the author keep the reader’s attention, interest, and investment. Finally, the author effectively and realistically deals with real issues in this story (rape, parental relationships, relational aggression, etc.). It’s incredibly important to have books like Speak, which talk about such important topics in effective ways. Students who receive special education services deserve to read high quality books just as much as anyone else. I am not alone in being complementary of the literary merit of this book. In fact, Speak won many awards such as the American Library Association’s Best books for Young Adults, Young Adult Library Services Association’s Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, and National Book Award Finalist.

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