Anderson set Speak in her hometown, Syracuse, New York. Although a specific date is not given, her popular culture references and jargon suggest that the novel's events occur in the late 1990s. Most of the action in Speak occurs in Melinda's mind. Readers have more access to Melinda's thoughts and perceptions regarding her actions after she was assaulted than her family, teachers, and peers. This mental setting reveals as much as Melinda is willing to face emotionally, becoming larger as she begins to accept what happened and then cope with her anger.
School is the primary setting. We first encounter Melinda as she rides the school bus on her first day in high school. The first student picked up, she strategically sits near the front in hopes of establishing eye contact with people she considers friends but remains alone because former "lab partners or gym buddies" use their eyes to "glare" and condemn her for calling the police to a party just days before. Melinda calls attention to being ignored, stating, "As we leave the last stop, I am the only person sitting alone." Entering the auditorium for freshman orientation, Melinda is aware that students are grouped in "clans" based on superficial social stereotypes and identities such as "Jocks," "Country Clubbers," and "Cheerleaders." Unwelcome in any of these cliques, Melinda is "clanless." She declares, "I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don't have anyone to sit with," just like on the bus. Her school is populated with insiders and outsiders according to who fits in and who does not, but no one is as completely erased as Melinda.
Classrooms and laboratories are unfriendly spaces in which Melinda is bored by the incompetence and personal agendas of many of her teachers. She receives a demerit trying to find her first class, foreshadowing her academic decline. Melinda realizes how school bureaucrats distance themselves from students and treat them impersonally. Angry classmates viciously confront and torment Melinda verbally with name calling and by mocking and harassing her. They also kick and push her and pull her hair.
The lunchroom is a hostile area, and Melinda avoids it. She frequently eats outside the main room in a courtyard. This space also becomes unbearable because it is where Heather ends their friendship based on her dislike of Melinda's moodiness. Although Melinda resists by saying that friends help each other during difficult times, Heather returns to the Marthas who "swallow her whole and she never looks back at me. Not once." This coldness is worsened by the display of Valentine's Day hearts on the cafeteria wall which excludes Melinda.
The Merryweather In-School Suspension's (MISS) bright, white classroom has "uncomfortable chairs and a lamp that buzzes like an angry hive." Melinda and other students are expected to sit still and look at the walls. When Andy Evans, the boy who raped her, shows up, Melinda describes herself as Bunny Rabbit, fearful of the predator. The MISS room intensifies Melinda's anguish by not protecting her, and Andy menacingly blows in her ear.
Melinda tries to avoid the gymnasium and its associated assemblies, pep rallies, basketball games, and demands on her skill for shooting foul shots. Other athletic spaces, particularly the tennis court, emphasize her potential strength. Melinda hides in the bathroom where she cries and overhears conversations demeaning her. Later, though, the bathroom provides her a forum to tell people the truth she has been repressing. Melinda gains access to the teacher's lounge when she helps Heather decorate it for a Thanksgiving meeting as a probationary task for Heather's possible inclusion into the Marthas. The "small green room with dirty windows and a lingering smell of cigarettes" with a "bulletin board that hasn't been cleared off since Americans walked on the moon" disappoints Melinda and affirms her realization that faculty lack respect and authority for themselves and others.
Melinda finds solace in the art room, which she calls "Cool Central," where her...
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Melinda's first person narration empowers Speak's literary strength. The use of monologue invites readers to become emotionally involved in the story and feel empathy for Melinda. Other than Mr. Freeman and David, readers seem to be the only people who will listen to her and comprehend what she is saying. Melinda's private narra- Cover illustration by Michael Morgenstern for Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. tion encourages her to speak boldly and provocatively without constraints or fear of being humiliated or punished. Melinda's monologue is presented in the form of short passages preceded with descriptive headers like journal entries, school newspaper bulletins, or quick phone calls. Sometimes paragraphs consist of a single sentence, symbolizing Melinda's isolation.
Anderson divides the novel into four sections, each representing a grading period of the academic year. These sections also correlate to seasons. This structural framework aids Anderson's depiction of Melinda's dramatic decline, her grades plummeting along with the temperatures, then her gradual ascent as spring brings renewal and birth. To cope with the overwhelming prospect of high school, Melinda divides time and counts down the days remaining until graduation. Like nature, Melinda transforms herself from being frozen and in hibernation to thawing for growth and revitalization. In spring, Melinda's germination studies in biology class stress that seeds are "restless" to sprout, which corresponds with Melinda's agitation as her need to speak surfaces. Her interest in planting around her house suggests that she is emerging from her self-imposed confinement.
Dialogue and the absence of dialogue delivers information. Anderson often shows how Melinda does not participate in conversations by presenting dialogue as a script. For example, another character such as Melinda's father will be designated by the tag "Dad:", followed by dialogue, then, on a separate line, Melinda will be identified as "Me:", followed by...
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Speak addresses many social concerns. Dating violence is the main issue that concerns characters. Unfortunately, Melinda's experience is one many teenage girls suffer. Physicians, psychologists, and social workers estimate that, on average, one out of five high school girls have been physically or sexually abused by a person they are dating. Date rape statistics increased dramatically by the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the two rates for teenage girls and adult females harmed by sexual abuse and assaults have become almost equivalent. In addition to assaults by romantic partners, many teenage girls are the victims of sexual attacks by casual acquaintances or strangers who may drug their drinks at parties or take advantage of their drunkenness. Other girls might be sexually victimized by family members or trusted adults. Young women also endure sexual harassment from their peers, teachers, employers, authority figures, or men in their communities. Although most victims of sexual crimes are female, some males are sexually harassed and assaulted. Sexism and discrimination based on gender are also problems teenagers encounter from peers, teachers, and administrators in high school.
Body image and development of selfesteem are interrelated during adolescence. Melinda's neglect of her hygiene and appearance represents her loss of self after being raped. Without intervention and counseling, she blames herself for Andy's attack and initiates...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Melinda keep her rape a secret? When should she have told someone? Who could she have asked for help?
2. What does alcohol symbolize in this novel?
3. How do the changing mascots reflect Melinda's ambivalence? Is she a product of her environment?
4. What does friendship mean to each character? Do they comprehend what love is? How and why do relationships between characters change? Who do you envision being friends in the future?
5. Why are the foreign exchange students significant to plot development and characterizations?
6. How are Melinda's mother and Heather similar? How do Melinda and Heather use each other? Is there any basis for true friendship?...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the topic of teen violence, both physical and psychological, directed toward other teenagers. Make a list of violent crimes that teenagers commit, such as armed robbery, date rape, and murder. Can a profile be established of typical offenders and victims?
2. Pick an object for an art project similar to that which Mr. Freeman assigned Melinda. Present it creatively as a painting, sculpture, poem, or some other artistic form.
3. Define the various types of sexual harassment, such as name calling, grabbing, gesturing, writing obscenities, or displaying pornography. Which forms do characters encounter in this novel? What motivates people to sexually harass others? How are both females and males...
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In 2000, Speak was adapted for audio by Listening Library in an unabridged reading by Mandy Siefried. Maria Mercedes Correa translated Speak into the Spanish edition Habla!, which was published in 2000.
Critics often compare the protagonist of John Marsden's So Much to Tell You (1990) with Melinda. Both girls have been silenced by tragedy, but Marsden's character is completely mute. In Michael Cadnum's Rundown (1999), the main character Jennifer falsely reports a rape attempt in a futile effort to gain her parents' attention. They are as disconnected from her emotional needs as Melinda's parents are. Jennifer withdraws much like Melinda. Many of Cadnum's young adult novels feature...
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For Further Reference
Adams, Lauren. Review of Speak. Horn Book Magazine, vol. 75 (September/October 1999): 605-606. Adams recommends Speak because of its main characters "smart and savvy interior narrative" that "also nails the high-school experience cold." Adams concludes, "An uncannily funny book even as it plumbs the darkness, Speak will hold readers from first word to last."
"Anderson, Laurie Halse." In Something about the Author, vol. 95. Detroit: Gale, 1998. This is a biographical sketch of Anderson and a list of resources prior to the publication of Speak.
Brown, Jennifer M. "In Dreams Begin Possibilities." Publishers Weekly, vol. 246 (December 20,1999): 24-25. Brown tells how...
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