Speak
Laurie Halse Anderson
1999
Printz Honor

This is an important book–one worth knowing. If you have a middle school or high school student who is in school somewhere (as opposed to being homeschooled), chances are high that he or she will know this book–maybe even be required to read it (it’s a popular choice for 8th grade classrooms currently). Reading further will expose you to spoilers–but not to more information than you will guess early on in the book.

So, what is this book about? Why are people talking about it, reading it, assigning it? Because it addresses hard topics in a witty, but no less poignant, way. It is narrated by a 9th grade girl named Melinda who has undergone a traumatic experience the summer before. The novel chronicles her effort to find her voice–literally as well as figuratively–and it is exactly her “voice” that we hear when we read that makes this novel so powerful and endearing, all at the same time.

Melinda has/is:

  • struggling with loneliness
  • offering witty stereotypes of her teachers and fellow students
  • wondering where to sit at lunch
  • depressed
  • unable to talk to her parents or her teachers (literally)
  • frustrated with school
  • misjudged by her peers
  • sarcastic
  • cuts school once or twice
  • cuts herself once or twice
  • has been raped

That lineup may make this book sound dark, but it isn’t. It’s funny, witty, poignant, tender. There is mention of the rape scene, but it’s fairy brief (although no less painful to read). The big reveal of this cause of her isolation/depression doesn’t happen until halfway through the book, leaving the reader to identify with her all-too-common 9th grade feelings…they’re just amplified by her experience and most readers will guess the truth before she discusses the event. The ending is a bit unrealistic, the art teacher is the good guy (of course!), the metaphors are in your face, but it’s worth reading nonetheless.

Kids respond to this book. Anderson has written a moving poem she titled “Listen” in which she compiled fragments of the many letters/emails she’s received from people (guys and girls both) who identify with something in Melinda’s story. It’s worth listening to.

Things to Note/Discuss

  • Melinda labels her teachers with easily recognizable stereotypes. People misjudge Melinda. She misjudges her parents. Andy completely objectified her. We all do this: treat other people as objects instead of subjects. What are some ways you or your friends or family objectify other people? (stereotypes, judging by looks, rejecting/accepting people based on outer characteristics, etc.)
  • How do we/can we treat other people as subjects? As persons, made in the image of God? How does David Petrakis or the art teacher do this in the book? Does Melinda make strides towards this by the end of the book?
  • Melinda is unable to speak at the beginning of the book. Do you think it would have made a difference if her friends had reacted differently to the events at the party? What could they or should they have done?
  • Who are the people in your life who you could talk to about something that is traumatic or troubling?
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