In Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak, the main character Melinda creates a safe haven for herself in an unused janitor's closet in her school. Over the course of her freshman year, she decorates the closet with things that are important to her. One of the most important pieces she hangs on the wall is the poster she find depicting Maya Angelou.
Maya Angelou was a poet, born in 1928. According to her website, she dropped out of high school and had a son when she was still young, but she went on write poetry, screenplays, and music. Her most well-known work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is often taught in high schools around the country. She was also active in The Civil Rights Movement, working with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. By the time of her death in 2014, she had been awarded 50 honorary doctorate degrees and several awards for her artistry.
Maya Angelou's importance to the Melinda and the novel Speak, however, is a bit more personal. Like Melinda herself, Maya Angelou was raped. It happened when she was 7 or 8 years old, by her mother's boyfriend. When she told someone about the assault, the man was murdered, most likely by Angelou's uncles. Also like Melinda, the experience caused Angelou to become mute. She was silent for 5 years or so, and it wasn't until until meeting Mrs. Bertha Flowers, who Angelou calls "the aristocrat of Black Stamps" in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings that she began to come out of her shell again. Again, like Melinda, Angelou was coaxed back into the world by a teacher figure, one who influenced her books much like Mr. Freeman influences Melinda with art.