Anderson, Laurie Halse. 2011. SPEAK. New York: Square Fish Publishing. ISBN 9780312674397.
It’s the first day of high school for ninth grader Melinda Sordino and no one is talking to her, even friends she’s had for years. At a summer party Melinda called the cops, but when they arrived she couldn’t tell them what happened. As the school year progresses and Melinda speaks less and less to her teachers, parents, and classmates, the reason behind her silence is revealed. Readers will cheer Melinda on as she tries to come to terms with what happened to her and find her voice again in this powerful coming of age novel.
Award winning author Laurie Halse Anderson tackles a very difficult subject with honesty and authenticity in this coming of age story. Melinda Sordino is a character that readers will immediately care for as she faces her first day of high school as an outsider, “I am clanless… I am Outcast.” Melinda’s abrupt actions ending a summer party have turned everyone against her, and she navigates the beginning of high school with only the new girl, Heather, speaking to her.
As if that isn’t bad enough, Melinda hates most of her classes, and former friends and strangers shun her. The one reprieve is her art class, where kind Mr. Freeman offers a glimpse of hope, “Welcome to the only class that will teach you how to survive.” Her yearlong art assignment is to turn ‘tree’ from a word to a piece of art, which becomes another theme woven throughout the book.
Melinda’s story unfolds throughout her freshman year. As her grades drop and her throat closes in making it more and more difficult to talk, what happened at the party is revealed, “My throat squeezes shut, as if two hands of black fingernails are clamped on my windpipe. I have worked so hard to forget every second of that stupid party… I can’t tell them what really happened. I can’t even look at that part myself.”
Anderson slowly exposes the rape that Melinda endured by IT, Andy Evans, one of the most popular seniors on campus, and her helplessness in knowing how to deal with the tragic event and the ostracism that ensues. Her portrayal of Melinda’s fear and vulnerability are woven throughout the book, as she sinks deeper and deeper into depression and despair. Young adult readers will relate to the portrayal of high school cliques, frustrations with teachers, administrators, and parents, and the underlying desire for friendship and acceptance. Melinda’s feelings of helplessness are real and griping, and readers are hopeful as she decides to warn her former best friend, Rachel, about Andy Evans, who now is pursuing her.
Mr. Freeman’s encouragement continues as he instructs Melinda on approaching her art assignment and her life, “This looks like a tree, but it is an ordinary, everyday, boring tree…Scar it, give it a twisted branch – perfect trees don’t exist. Nothing is perfect.”
The book’s ending shows a transformed Melinda as she is forced to confront another attack by IT, but this time with a hopeful ending, and the realization of her own power, “IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying or burying, or hiding… 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.” Melinda is able to find her voice, her power, unclench her throat, and speak for herself and her future.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY starred review: “Anderson infuses the narrative with a with a wit that sustains the heroine through her pain and holds readers’ empathy. The book’s overall gritty realism and Melinda’s hard-won metamorphosis will leave readers touched and inspired.”
BOOKLIST: “Melinda’s voice is distinct, unusual, and very real as recounts her past and present experiences in bitterly ironic, occasionally even amusing vignettes. Melinda’s sarcastic wit, honesty, and courage will maker her a memorable character whose ultimate triumph will inspire and empower readers.”
Michael L. Printz Honor Book
National Book Award Finalist
ALA Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Booklist Top 10 First Novels (1999)
Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year 1999
- Poetry Connection – Read and discuss the poem Listen that is in the back of the book, or download from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Web Site www.madwomanintheforest.com . The poem is comprised of comments the author has received from readers after reading the book.
- Visit Laurie Halse Anderson’s Web Site and download classroom discussion guides.
- Have student research and report on sexual assault and local resources for victims.
- Watch the movie and discuss how the book and film differ. Some questions to ask: is the movie true to the book, what was left out, how did the impact the story.
- Books to explore: Wintergirls, Twisted both by Laurie Halse Anderson
Image from madwomanintheforest.com