“Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson is an extremely powerful young adult novel. I read it back in high school and decided to revisit it again. Reading the book a second time around I found myself struck by just how accurately Laurie Halse Anderson is able to capture high school and how it feels to not fit in.
The first line that really struck me was on the fourth page. The main character, Melinda Sordino tells the reader: “I am Outcast” (Speak, pg 4). We know from the beginning of the book that Melinda has lost all her friends and the majority of the school hates her. We soon learn that she has gained this notoriety by calling the cops at an end-of-the-year party, which ended up getting a lot of kids in trouble. We do not know why she called the cops. It is obvious to the reader that Melinda is depressed and that something has happened to cause this depression, but we do not know what. One thing that is made clear to the reader is why the book is titled “Speak”. Melinda is told multiple times throughout the book that she needs to speak, talk, and share her thoughts and feelings. The Melinda the readers know has retreated into herself. And very early in the book Melinda goes into a rant about it. “It is easier not to say anything. Shut your trap, button your lip, can it. All that crap you hear on TV about communication and expressing feelings is a lie. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say.” (Speak, pg 9). I thought this was very powerful and also an interesting foreshadowing into the rest of the book.
Part of what makes “Speak” such an interesting read is learning how the other people in Melinda’s life react to her drastic change in personality. Although as the reader we meet the depressed, introverted, anti-social Melinda, it becomes clear that this is not how she has always been. More and more frequently it is hinted that the catalyst for her personality change happened at the end-of-the-year party. “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.” (Speak, pg 51). I thought this quote was quite potent.
As we get further into the school year, Melinda seems to find a kind of refuge in art. I liked that she was able to find something to tether her to the world. Art grounds her and frees her at the same time and I think that a large part of this has to do with her art teacher really encouraging her to take her time, experiment, and lose herself in the art. At one point he is explaining to her how art without emotion is like chocolate without sugar. He then goes on to say, “Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage – whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling. When people don’t express themselves they die one piece at a time.” (Speak, pg 122). I really liked this quote and I agree with it. It is important for people to find an outlet in which they can express themselves. I believe that Melinda was able to find the strength she held within herself by discovering it first through her art.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. I think that “Speak” is a very powerful novel that would appeal to a wide audience. I really enjoyed the way that this book was written where Melinda was narrating and the only communication we see from anyone else is seen through her eyes. She observes how individuals behave while they are speaking to her and it makes for a refreshing read. I also think that Melinda’s strength grows throughout the novel and it is interesting to watch it develop. I think that this is an excellent read, one that would appeal to anyone that has ever felt like they were on the outside.
“Sometimes I think high school is one long hazing activity: if you are tough enough to survive this, they’ll let you become an adult. I hope it’s worth it.” (Speak, pg 191)