Introductory Lecture and Objectives
Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Speak after she had a nightmare in which she heard a girl screaming. That girl ultimately became Melinda Sordino, Speak’s narrator and protagonist. When the book was published in 1999, it was a National Book Award Finalist and was considered one of the “Top 10 First Novels of 1999” by Booklist. An article in the New York Times by Ned Vizzini credits the success of Speak with showing that books for young adults could have both literary and commercial value. In its gritty depiction of rape and its aftereffects, Speak communicates with adolescents about subjects that, while difficult, are also very significant in their lives.
Speak is an emotionally wrenching narrative about Melinda’s freshman year of high school. While Melinda speaks very little to her family, teachers, or classmates, her narrative voice is wrought with pain, loneliness, and suffering. The first year of high school is rarely an easy one, as the uncomplicated friendships formed throughout elementary school and middle school frequently break up or are challenged by new cliques and an often harmful rumor mill. For Melinda, freshman year is nothing short of a nightmare. An outcast, she is reviled for calling the police to the scene of a summer party, and she won’t tell anyone the horrible reason for her call. Melinda struggles with social isolation, depression, self-loathing, and the threatening presence of IT, the senior who hurt her at the party.
Melinda’s pain and recovery, so movingly recounted in Anderson’s novel, resounds with others who have suffered from sexual abuse or rape. Anderson has received mail from thousands of readers over the years who identify with Melinda’s struggles. Those letters include lines like “I was raped, too,” and “this book cracked my shell.” Speak allows victims of sexual abuse to see that their complex feelings are not unique and that someone understands how hard it is to speak about what they have experienced.
According to Anderson, the novel’s staying power isn’t solely due to its treatment of rape; she believes it has resonated with so many because it is also a book about depression. “Today’s teens have to cope with massive amounts of stress and conflict,” she said in an interview with her publisher. “Way too many of them understand the pain of not feeling like they can speak up.” Even without enduring the trauma of sexual abuse, young people often find navigating the high school terrain to be a difficult, lonely journey.
Speak has won accolades for its literary artistry, but it also has drawn the attention of censors who feel the subject matter is inappropriate for students. A 2010 op-ed in the Springfield, Missouri paper News-Leader referred to Speak as soft pornography. The American Library Association ranked Speak number sixty in a list of top banned books of the first decade of the twentieth century. To critics who would censor the novel, Anderson responds that literature is a safe place to learn about the world and a medium through which values can be passed on to the next generation; moreover, she points out that refraining from speaking to teens about difficult issues leaves them vulnerable. Anderson believes that “books save lives.” Given young readers’ heartfelt responses to Speak, Melinda’s story likely has saved lives.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how and why many of the authority figures in Melinda’s life fail her.
2. Describe Melinda’s metamorphosis from silent to strong.
3. Identify how Anderson uses symbolism to chart Melinda’s healing.
4. Explain the power of voice in the novel and the various forms voice can take.
5. Compare and contrast Melinda’s outward behavior and appearance with her inner life.