Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Silent Act--a review of SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson

Melinda Sordino is a Freshman at Merryweather High, and she’s just about as isolated as they come.  She had friends before, but something happened last summer—something bad, something unspeakable—and now she is shunned, ostracized and outcast.  What’s going on?  Why won’t Melinda talk?  Is it that she can’t or that she won’t—speak? 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson’s external portrayal of Melinda is about as real as they come. When I taught in high schools, I had at least one girl like Melinda in every English class. They usually tucked their hands inside the sleeves of their baggy sweatshirts, hid their eyes behind their hair, never looked adults in the eye, liked art class, and seemed to shy away from boys. They were usually disinterested and mildly disdainful of their classes. As a teacher, I always wanted to get inside the heads of these girls, and thanks to Anderson, I feel I have.

From Glee to Gossip Girl to Pretty Little Liars to 90210, portrayal of teenagers is rife with stereotypes. And, while the novel is set in high school, the penultimate stereotype factory, Anderson doesn’t stop with the stereotypes, which is what makes Speak ultra-real. Chosing to share Melinda’s story through a series of diary-like entries rather than traditional chapter divisions, Anderson manages to escape stereotypes by allowing the reader to connect with Melinda’s inner dialogue, distinguishing her as an individual. What helps the other characters avoid being stereotypical is the fact that they are freshmen trying to fit in, so their images are shifting. Rachel, formerly a Plain Jane and formerly Melinda’s friend, becomes a Eurotrash wannabe. Nicole, a female jock. The inability of Melinda to speak is juxtaposed with the ability of her fellow classmate, hero, and possible romantic interest, David Petrakis’ ability to stand up for himself in the face of unjust treatment by a teacher, also avoiding stereotypical treatment. 

Contemporary fiction runs the risk of becoming overtly issue-oriented, and for this reader, Speak is almost marred by its pre-occupation with the issue of rape. It was clear to me early in the book that Melinda had undergone a traumatic experience at the party after which she was ostracized. I was 98% sure she had been raped, but the narrative was compelling enough for me to want the details. What keeps this book from going the way of the After-School Special, however, is the strength of its overall theme which is hinted at in the title: Speak. Like so many high school girls, Melinda needed help finding a voice. If an adult reader keeps in mind that a freshman who had been raped by a very popular jock would undoubtedly find it the central, preoccupying issue in her life, the book can be forgiven for its overtness, and may perhaps, be even more real than an adult realizes. This book is a Young Adult novel. It’s meant for teenage girls. Halse definitely understands her audience, and the adults can butt out if they so choose, thank-you-very-much.

Awards and Reviews
Speak has garnered many awards. The most major awards are listed here, but a full list can be found at the author's site online.

Printz Honor Book
National Book Award Finalist
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Booklist Editor’s Choice
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Book
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

“In her YA fiction debut, Anderson perfectly captures the harsh conformity of high-school cliques and one teen’s struggle to find acceptance from her peers. Melinda’s sarcastic wit, honesty, and courage make her a memorable character whose ultimate triumph will inspire and empower readers.” – Debbie Carton, Booklist (September 15, 1999)

“The plot is gripping and the characters are powerfully drawn, but it is its raw and unvarnished look at the dynamics of the high school experience that makes this a novel that will be hard for readers to forget.” – Kirkus Reviews (September 15, 1999)

“Anderson expresses the emotions and the struggles of teenagers perfectly. Melinda’s pain is palpable, and readers will totally empathize with her. This is a compelling book, with sharp, crisp writing that draws readers in, engulfing them in the story.” – Dina Sherman, School Library Journal (October 1, 1999)

“Readers will easily identify with Melinda, a realistic, likeable character. Anderson portrays a large suburban high school with a fresh and authentic eye. …By using a conversational, first-person narrative, the author takes the reader into Melinda’s world. This story has an important lesson: never be afraid to speak up for yourself.” – Rebecca Vnuk, VOYA (December 1, 1999)

“…the book’s overall gritty realism and Melinda’s hard-won metamorphosis will leave readers touched and inspired.” – Publisher’s Weekly (September 13, 1999)

Lesson Extensions
This book covers extremely sensitive subject matter, and might be best suited for reading in a high school Girls’ PE or Health class.
*Teachers could invite a guest speaker from an emergency room, health clinic, or rape crisis center to speak to the girls about date rape, assault, and rape prevention.
*Local martial artists could instruct girls in methods of self-defense.
*The book could be used as a starting point for a discussion about the dangers of peer pressure and stereotyping in high school.

Free study guide available here.

Vital Stats
Anderson, Laurie Halse. (1999). Speak. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. ISBN: 978-0-374-37152-4.

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