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It is getting harder to talk.  My throat is always sore, my lips raw.  When I wake up in the morning, my jaws are clenched so tight I have a headache.  Sometimes my mouth relaxes around Heather, if we’re alone.  Every time I try to talk to my parents or a teacher, I sputter or freeze.  What is wrong with me?  It’s like I have some kind of spastic laryngitis.

I know my head isn’t screwed on straight.  I want to leave, transfer, warp myself to another galaxy.  I want to confess everything, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to someone else.  There is a beast in my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the insides of my ribs.  Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, staining me.  My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them.

(from Speak, pages 50-51)

(I already knew what this book was about before picking it up, and it didn’t affect my reading at all.  It’s hard to discuss the important aspects of the book without giving away what happens to the main character.  It’s probably common knowledge, but I just wanted to warn you all up front.)

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Melinda Sordino begins her freshman year of high school — a confusing and scary time for teenagers — as an outcast.  After being raped at an end-0f-summer party, Melinda calls the police, and not knowing what happened, her friends and other students are mad at her for breaking up the party and causing some of them to be arrested.  Not sure how to deal with the rape, Melinda turns inward and stops speaking unless absolutely necessary.  It’s an easy thing to do since no one in school is talking to her anyway — unless you count the new girl, Heather, who sees Melinda as someone to hang out with while she searches for the right clique — and her parents are pre-occupied with work and maybe some marital problems.

Melinda understandably becomes depressed.  Her grades plummet, she skips class, and she gets in trouble with teachers.  She carves out a private space in an old janitor’s closet, which further highlights her withdrawal from the world.  Her only refuge is art class, where Mr. Freeman (appropriately named) recognizes Melinda’s talent and encourages her to express herself.

Her parents’ reaction to these changes is especially sad.  They see their daughter go from having good grades to failing her classes, and one would assume they would notice that she no longer has friends.  Not to mention the fact that she no longer speaks.  Rather than reach out to Melinda, her mother says she doesn’t have time for this.  Her parents are concerned to a point, but it felt more like annoyance and exasperation to me, though that might be Melinda’s perceptions.

Written in the first person, Speak allows readers to feel Melinda’s pain, her struggle between the part of her who wants to wallow in sorrow and the part of her who wants to live again, and the intense fear when she encounters “IT’ in the hallways or around town. Speak has been banned because it’s about a teenage rape victim.  I can understand that such a topic may make parents uncomfortable, but we have to accept the ugly fact that Melinda may be fictional but her story rings true to many young girls.  Anderson does not write the rape scene in a graphic manner, managing to pack a punch in a very short paragraph with little description.

Why would people want to pull from the shelves a book that could empower a girl in Melinda’s situation, give her some comfort, encourage her to tell someone about her pain, and seek help?  I understand the need to shelter our daughters and sons from the hurts of the world as much as we can, but censorship does not accomplish that.  Speak should be used to start a dialogue with teens, and you can be sure I will recommend it to my daughter when she’s a bit older.

Disclosure: I borrowed Speak from my local library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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