Monday, May 3, 2021

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson


When I was a freshman, the girl behind me in one of my classes tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I reminded her of the girl in SPEAK. I don't even remember what the context for this revelation was. It was right before class was about to start and I was just minding my own business. I was extremely socially phobic and carried around a drawing notebook and did the same sort of nervous lip-chewing thing and I was like, huh this sounds like a trap. But when you're a kid and someone tells you that you remind them of a character in a book, you read the book. So I got my hands on a copy of Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK and I was... well, horrified.

Because, you know, the rape thing.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the book. With all the chipper, nostalgic YA fiction coming of age stories coming out with the plucky and indomitable heroines, it was so refreshing to read about a character who was miserable and didn't care who knew about it. I can't tell you how many fucking people-- teachers alike-- told me to "smile" when I was young. In her case, her depression was a by-product of her trauma and social shaming. In my case, it was just depression. And that isn't to trivialize depression at all, but in my mind, at age fourteen, it felt a little strange to find myself relating to a character so strongly and yet not have the same sort of external reasons that she did. It made me feel like my depression was unwarranted and maybe undeserved, which caused a lot of angst.

I'm surprised more people don't like Melinda Sordino's character, to be honest. SPEAK has such mixed reviews among my friends. Some people took issue with Melinda's snarkiness (which felt super accurate to me). Some took issue with the way rape was presented and treated (which is a fair point-- especially since not all victims of sexual abuse have the same experiences, although this isn't something I can personally speak to with much authority). Some people didn't like the writing style, which is also fair. It's formatted almost like a teen's notebook and it really does read like someone's found journal. Reading this book gave me all of the same feels that I got reading it the first time, and even though I'm slightly less jaded and misanthropic now than I was as a kid, I love the portrayal of adolescent angst. It also talked about issues that not a lot of adults writing YA talked about at the time, or that weren't readily available and widely publicized if they were. The only book I can really think of that I had access to and read at the time that talked about sexual assault and the unhappiness and angst that sometimes comes with being a girl was HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros.

This is a book I would recommend to any teen who is tired of reading sugary-sweet stories written by adults that kind of romanticize the high school experience and want to read something "real." It was published a while ago so it does have a slightly warped and un-PC reflection of high school and its students, but this is really what high school was like where I went, and a lot of the people and the things they do and say have real-life counterparts in my own memories. Just, you know, maybe learn from my classmate and don't go around telling people that they remind you of Melinda Sordino.

5 out of 5 stars

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