I have a certain tendency to weigh myself down with too many dense books, get overwhelmed trying to slog through them, and then just stop reading for a while. However, this year, I am trying to make a reading goal–40 books for the year–which means I cannot afford the usual stall-outs. To attempt to break this pattern, I am trying to intersperse my denser reads (currently reading: Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake, Focualt’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and a short story anthology by Lovecraft) with quick, light reads–which is what lead me to Speak. And boy am I glad it did.
Speak is firmly a young adult novel, following a year in the life of high school freshman Melinda Sordino just after she’s suffered the horrific experience of being raped by a senior at an end-of-summer party, then cast out for calling the cops to break up that same party. The trauma of the event has minimized Melinda’s ability to speak for herself or even explain what happened, and she spends the majority of the novel entirely in her own head, making snide observations about the people around her as she struggles to come to terms with what happened to her. Slowly, with help from an art teacher who encourages her to express herself through other mediums, Melinda recovers enough to tell her story.
This book has won about a million awards, and deservedly so; it is not only a fast-paced and engaging read, but also an intensely personal look into the way that sexual assault can affect a person and cause them to act in seemingly bizarre and inexplicable ways. The real strength of Speak comes from Melinda herself, who, while not terribly communicative with the outside world, nevertheless has a way with words that grants the reader a real sense of empathy with her. She’s smart, funny, sardonic, and genuine. She gives a voice to those who are unable to speak for themselves. Whether she’s hiding in a janitor closet or struggling to carve a tree out of a linoleum block, nothing Melinda says feels forced or disingenuous. It’s like reading the diary of a real person.
Aside from being a truly excellent book in its own right, though, Speak exists on another level: it was one of the first young adult novels to broach the subject of sexual assault and try to explain how these things can damage a person emotionally, beyond what is seen on the surface. Published in 1999, it’s amazing how relevant the book still is today, 14 years later–and a little bit sad. Girls (and boys) like Melinda exist all across the world, unable to speak up for themselves for fear of reprisal, or harsh judgment, or any number of other reasons, and it has been going on for entirely too long. At the root of the problem is a lack of understanding of the very real impact this kind of violence can have on victims long-term, which is why we need books like Speak–books that speak up for those who feel compelled to stay silent.
Luckily, Speak is being taught in a number of schools across the U.S., and has already changed the lives of many teenagers. The edition that I have (the one pictured above) opens with a poem Anderson put together from lines in emails sent to her by readers–emails telling her how Melinda’s story helped them confront their own abuses and horrors, and understand the difficulties of others. Just the poem alone is reason enough to pick up this book. Highly recommended, for everyone–male and female alike. A++.
“…lies they tell you in high school: We are here to help you.” -Melinda, Speak