Review || Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: #OwnVoices sexual assault survivor

My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

39280444Speak is one of those books that’s become a bit innocuous within the YA world. Why? Because it was—to my knowledge at least—the first YA book to deal openly with sexual assault.

On the surface, Melinda seems like a typical, if a bit awkward, ninth grader: she hates going to class, feels like algebra is useless, and avoids connecting with her parents. In so many ways, Melinda is incredibly relatable. She reminds me of my 14-year-old self in that she’s dealing with undiagnosed depression and wondering why no one in the world seemed to care what she has to say. As the story progresses, Melinda avoids speaking whenever possibly and it becomes clear that she’s coping with trauma by pretending it never happened.

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Reading this book for the second time, I was struck by the deceptive simplicity of the writing.

This is a book that could be read in one sitting, without a doubt. At just about 200 pages, it’s not a long read, and the language reflects the mental age of the main character perfectly. Anderson tells the story in short but powerful vignettes, each revealing an aspect of Melinda’s everyday life and thought processes. Despite the classic teen angst of not fitting in with peer cliques and frustration with teachers, there’s an underlying thread of pure sadness.

Melinda exhibits symptoms of depression and anxiety as she attempts to ignore her trauma: she’s constantly biting her lips to the point that they’re cracked and bleeding; she avoids talking to people, skipping class to hide out in an abandoned janitorial closet; she constantly talks about how she wants to just go back to bed forever. Yes, it’s angsty; yes, it’s also realistic.

The hardest part about reading this again, though, was noticing the many ways the adults in Melinda’s life fail her.

I am not a parent (and definitely not a parent to a teenager) but I can guarantee you that I’d definitely sit up and take notice if a 14-year-old girl in my life suddenly stopped speaking entirely. Melinda’s parents are characterized as being so involved in their own lives that they either don’t notice her behavior, or that they just write it off as Teen Angst.

What I truly don’t understand is the reaction of Melinda’s teachers. Rather than seeing her behavior as a cry for help, they lecture her on how she needs to apply herself and show up for class. Not even the literal guidance counselor attempts to look beneath the surface of Melinda’s behavior for the underlying cause.

Ultimately, this is a character-driven story of Melinda’s albeit incomplete recovery from sexual assault.

For the majority of the book, the unknowing reader may not know what happened to her. Someone who’s looked into the book might know ahead of time that it involves rape, but not necessarily know the context. I certainly enjoyed reading the book again knowing ahead of time—and I think it’s important that this book be labeled as potentially triggering. On my second reading, I was able to trace the tiny hints at Melinda’s trauma throughout and appreciate her slow trudge toward recovery.

In writing this review, my biggest struggle lies in discerning the merits of this book versus what I would’ve preferred to see.

On the one hand, Speak shows how dealing with sexual assault comes down to whether or not the person recognizes her own agency and grasps control over her life. Still, I personally wanted more than the book leaves us with: I wanted to know how the adults in Melinda’s life react when she finally comes clean about being raped. I wanted to see “IT” brought to justice. I wanted to see Melinda’s parents come around to realizing their mistake in not taking her behavior seriously. I wanted, more than anything, to see Melinda in therapy for her depression and anxiety related to her trauma.

I originally read this book as a sophomore or junior in high school.

I remember being struck by the sadness of the story about a ninth grader who stops speaking after she’s raped at a party. At the time, though, I remember being struck with the feeling of “but this kind of thing doesn’t happen all that often, so there’s no point in dwelling on it.”

I recently spoke with a close friend, asking if she’d ever heard of this book, as she would’ve been in high school when it came out. For her, rape wasn’t discussed openly until she was in college, and then only because she took a class on the psychology of trauma. I don’t recall an open discussion of the prevalence and reality of rape before the year 2010, when I took Intro to Women’s Studies in college.

I don’t think this is a perfect book about rape. I don’t think there is in existence a perfect book about rape. I do think feminism owes a debt of gratitude to Laurie Halse Anderson, for not only bravely writing from her own experiences, but for opening up a place for conversation a time that it didn’t really exist outside of outspoken feminist circles.

Even in its imperfections, Speak is an important piece of feminist YA history and I’m thankful for its existence.

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—find this book—
Goodreads | B&N | IndieBound

Have you read Speak or any other books by Laurie Halse Anderson? What is the first book you read with sexual assault rep? Let me know in the comments!

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