Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

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In honor of Banned Books Week, I thought it only fitting to talk about the one and only Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Every now and then you read a book that grips you so fiercely, you know you carry a chunk of it with you wherever you go. I’m not talking about book hangovers, I’m talking drunk-in-love, full-on-can’t-stop-won’t-stop-smiling-or-crying stories.

Ironically, Speak left me speechless. A friend recommended this book to me and my sister bought it for me for Christmas (it was first published in 1999), so it was an inevitable read for me. Cheryl Klein also mentions this contemporary young-adult classic in her book (Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults) during a talk on amazing first lines in children’s and young-adult books. And it’s true; from the first line—the first paragraph—I was hooked.

Speak is a game-changer: a book to be passed from generation to generation. Far from the stereotypical “teenage outcast” story, Speak is beloved by readers of all ages, regarded as “tough, tender, and darkly funny.” Melinda Sordino is a character readers immediately sympathize with, no matter how long it’s been since they’ve walked through the halls of high school and all the insecurities and secrets buried there. Speak is a story about how some secrets bury you, not the other way around. And some secrets, some traumas, are too heavy to bear.

Speak is like a dark room, and Laurie leads readers in with a small light that slowly grows brighter, repelling downward into an honest depiction of what loneliness and trauma and depression is really like for high school kids.

While we’re invited into this pit of despair, she doesn’t leave us there—Melinda’s snarky and quirky personality is funny and light, and we emerge with her, ourselves transformed.

I have to admit I was often stunned reading this novel: Not only because of Melinda’s funny, authentic voice and the witty writing, but I was enamored by her metamorphosis and touched by her introspection—which, surprisingly, did not slow down the pacing of the novel.

In a sense, she is clever and tough, and yet most readers throughout the years are sensitive to her struggle; there is a certain vulnerability Laurie masters. I mentioned in my most recent book review that Jodi Lynn Anderson, author of Tiger Lily, is a master of showing rather than telling. It must be an Anderson thing; but Laurie just may have her beat.

Rather than choosing to write, “My mom is exhausted from working all the time,” she writes, “We stop at a traffic light. Mom closes her eyes. Her skin is a flat gray color, like underwear washed so many times it’s about to fall apart. I feel bad that I didn’t fold more shirts for her.”

Instead of writing, “I was haunted by this secret, and I felt sick about it,” she writes, “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.”

This book demonstrates the importance of Banned Books Week and why we should celebrate the freedom to read. I have no doubt this book will continue to captivate readers of all ages, but perhaps more importantly, it continues to remind teens living with trauma and depression that they are not alone.