For What It's Worth

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Banned Book Week

September 25th - October 2nd


Speak: 10th Anniversary EditionMelinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary first novel has captured the imaginations of teenagers and adults across the country. (YA)

Speak was such an incredibly powerful book for me. From the first chapter: WELCOME TO MERRYWEATHER HIGH, I was pulled back to my high school experience. Where to sit on the school bus? Where do you sit for lunch? What do you bring for lunch? Anderson captured the minutia of high school perfectly.
High School is usually a time that is remembered fondly for most people. But there are people who don’t fit in, are on the fringe of the various “clans” as Melinda calls them. Speak is a novel that gives them a voice.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying Speak is about Melinda coming to terms with being raped. She’s lost her ability to speak up for herself, her ability to be a part of this world. It’s about her struggle to find that voice again, become whole again.

It is handled in such a heartbreaking, beautiful way, using the tree as a metaphor. (The cover is brilliant!) Melinda is given a project in art class. She has to make a tree out of any medium she chooses. Her art teacher, Mr. Freeman, encourages her to let her emotions come through to bring the tree to life.

As the tree goes from something perfect carved from a linoleum block to one drawn with dying branches, to one with new lush growth we watch Melinda heal.

The story is told from Melinda’s point of view but the few characters that drift in and out of her world in small ways have profound effects. Most notably: classmates David Petrakis, Nicole, Heather and former best friend Rachel. Through their own actions or inaction's, they slowly help push Melinda to break down those walls and provide her with small victories even if they unaware of their impact on her struggles.

Now to touch on the issue that made me read Speak to begin with. The article by Dr. Wesley Scroggins (Filthy books demeaning to Republic education) where he classified Speak as “soft pornography” and requested it be banned from the required reading curriculum in MO high schools.

When I finished this book I was stunned. Stunned, to see this is the book he was targeting. There is nothing graphic, nothing explicit. I’m just not seeing it. Even the rape scenes themselves were not graphic. Emotionally intense is how I would describe this book. But not explicit, not graphic. In fact, this is one of the least explicit YA books I’ve read this year.

So do I think Speak should be in schools? Yes, and here’s why. You may want to turn away if you don’t like posts getting personal. I don’t see another way to write it.

If you had a happy childhood, a wonderful high school experience and great parents, I’m thrilled for you. I did not. Many of the people I knew did not.

My mother died of cancer when I was 14. I was an only child and unbearably lonely with no one to talk to. My best friend was being molested by her father and brother. Her mother blamed her. Another acquaintance was gay. The neighborhood boys thought that was a sin and gang raped her in a cemetery to change her. She went to her parents. They sent her in for electroshock therapy to cure her. We had no one to talk to. We spoke and no one listened.

I grew up in the time of Ozzy biting off bat heads, and Judas Priest singing about the devil. I was told that I was going to become satanic or suicidal if I listened to their music. I lived through the music, what I almost didn’t survive was the extreme isolation I felt. Reading Speak would have been like a lifeline to me. I would have felt there was someone else out there like me and that just maybe I could make it. It would have helped me take those first tentative steps and reach out to someone who cared.

It deeply saddens me that the message of this book gets lost when one man has decided it’s dirty. Most people won’t look further into this issue on either side. Just because someone wants to look at and monitor the books their children are required to read in school doesn’t automatically make them book banners or uneducated. But by the same token to just take Mr. Scoggin’s word for it that these books should be banned without reading them first is also wrong. We lead busy lives and it’s so much easier to let him do all the legwork and if he says they’re bad, then they must be. His article puts Speak so out of context it’s scary.

Before making your judgment, read the book. You may still agree with Dr. Scoggin’s, or you may not. We don’t live in a perfect world; we can’t just read things that are perfect and happy. In high school, girls are raped, people do drugs, commit suicide, sometimes school sucks and we hate our teachers. Life’s messy. Not all of us have parents we can talk to. That doesn’t mean anything goes and we don’t try to shape our children’s lives. But Speak is told in context. It can help people. It has helped people. That makes it worth it to me.

May you find the courage to speak and the compassion to listen.

Authors website: Mad Woman in the Forest
Buy the book:  Speak: 10th Anniversary Edition 

Note: I do suggest you read the 10th Anniversary edition if you are able to. It contains bonus material created for this edition including a new introduction and afterword from the author, resources, and discussion guide.
Before the story begins there is a compilation of letters sent to the author called "Listen" - beautiful.....just beautiful.


  1. After reading your thoughts I want this book more than ever the be around so that kids can read it. Perhaps even speak out

  2. A fantastic and much-needed review Karen. That article was beyond infuriating, and to even remotely compare a rape scene to porn is absolutely nauseating. Thanks for this:)

  3. One of the best reviews I've read. To be honest I'm not too sure I would WANT to read this book but, it being a banned book, I feel I NEED to read it, if only to see for myself what all the fuss is about.

  4. What a powerful post for a powerful book. I'm so sorry about all the pain you went through and that of your friends.

  5. @Petty - I only read it because of all the controversy. I didn't feel like I could comment if I didn't know both sides. I was just so surprised that this book is banned.

    @Everyone - I'm fine now! Don't worry about me :-) Met a great guy and life is was just a difficult time in high school as I think it is for a lot of kids. this book would have helped.

  6. Great post. I loved this book, and the fact that anyone wanted to ban it, drives me nuts. Scroggins really needs his head examined.

  7. You've written a beautiful review, thank you ... I haven't yet read Speak, but definitely plan to do so one of these days ... I guess the good thing about this whole Scroggins Debacle is that the book is going to reach so many people who may not have heard of it otherwise.

    It really makes me mad when people try to shove their beliefs down everyone else's throats ... if you feel that a book about overcoming a rape is the same as porn, Twenty Boy Summer will make you promiscuous and reading Harry Potter will turn you into a satanist, that's pretty narrow minded (and stupid), but - FINE - keep yourself and your children away from these books, but leave the rest of the world out of it.

  8. Wow, Karen, thank you for the very personal review and for sharing your personal experiences with us. It takes a lot of courage to share. This book sounds amazing, and i'm horrified that it or any other book would be banned. Thank you for sharing what the book means to you.

  9. I was quite speechless for some time after you shared your personal story i really felt for you and your mates, no one deserves that, thank you for the amazing post hun

  10. Speak is another book that I dove into knowing virtually nothing about it from the start. I knew it was in the "adolescent lit" category and that the narrator spent some time doing some artwork trying to express herself. I was not at all ready for the deeply emotional and heart wrenching story of the novel. This isn't by any means a piece of adolescent "fluff" like the flood of teen books flooding the market in recent years. Rather it is an intense exploration of a teenager struggling with alienation, self-worth, honesty and change. It's about the struggle she goes through in trying to find her voice in the midst of emotional turmoil.

  11. This book had a very interesting plot tat was full of suspension and real life events, perfect for the teenage girl. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson was one of the best books that I have ever read. I enjoyed reading about her triumphing through her troubles and giving the boy the justice that he deserved! It was very well written and helped you truly understand Melinda's pain and why she was so afraid to SPEAK!

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