Melinda’s freshman year is off to a nightmare start. She’s a pariah at school for having called the cops and busted up the huge house party right before school started. Her friends refuse to speak with her, so she can’t explain what happened. Mr. Neck, the history teacher, is out to get her, and when the reports start to come in about her skipping class, her parents are on her back, too. This is a story about Melinda’s freshman year, about sexual assault, depression, and the sometimes crushing social scene in high school in what could be Anywhere, USA. But Speak is also about another side of the high school experience. It’s about strength and courage. It’s about the people who are there to help and to protect when you have the courage to speak.
It almost seems silly to review a book that first came out fifteen years ago, no less one that’s won the National Book Award. I’ve known for a long time that Speak is one of those books everyone interested in young adult literature should read, a book that people talk about, a part of the YA literary cannon. I’ve known these things for years, and I’m generally a rule follower, but I still never picked up the book. I knew that this book included sexual assault, and I waited for the time when I felt up to reading a book that would leave an emotional hangover. Somehow that moment never came. Then, this summer I had a conversation with a college friend who had read Speak with her teenage daughter. She recommended it highly. The next time I was in the library, I checked it out.
If you, like me, avoid books that leave an emotional hangover, let me tell you now you will probably be safe reading Speak. Anderson wrote a powerful book about important topics. This book is about a young woman who has to deal with sexual assault, ostracism, and depression. Boy did I feel sympathy for her! But Anderson doesn’t use the emotional sledgehammer method of communicating Melinda’s distress. The reader is perhaps even shielded from emotions from Melinda’s depression which puts a buffer on everything. The story is moving, enlightening, and, in the end, hopeful. You’ve probably been smarter than me and read it already, but if not, I recommend you do. And if you have a teenage daughter or son, get them to read it if you can, and then take a long ride in the car together. It might provide the fodder for a really important conversation.