There are so many reasons I look forward to writing this column every week. I love rereading the classic YA books from my youth and remembering how awesome they are. I also adore interacting with the lovely HelloGiggles community and talking about the Important Issues, like our YA crushes. And I tend to get really excited when I come across a YA book that’s new to me. Even though Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak was published more than ten years ago and has been taught in classrooms/banned from libraries all over the country, I just read it for the first time. It’s heartbreaking, hopeful and surprisingly hilarious. I can’t believe I haven’t picked it up before.
Melinda begins her first day of high school as an outcast. No one to sit with on the bus, no one to compare class schedules with, and no one to have lunch with in the cafeteria. Melinda used to have friends, but when she called the cops on a big party over the summer, everyone turned on her. She’s a snitch, a tattletale and a bad friend.
What the kids at school don’t know is why Melinda called the cops, because Melinda won’t talk about what happened that night with anyone. She can’t tell her classmates, her teachers or her parents that she was raped.
Melinda becomes nearly mute, unable to speak about even mundane things. “It’s easier not to say anything,” she thinks. “Shut your trap, button your lip, can it. All that crap you hear on TV about communication and expressing feelings is a lie. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say.” Melinda bites her lips until they’re scarred and bleeding, she gains weight and she wears baggy clothes; anything to hurt and hide herself. She doesn’t even want to look at herself in the mirror. Melinda can’t move on because she blames herself for what happened that night. She didn’t try hard enough to fight him off, she didn’t scream, she was drunk: the standard reasons many victims don’t report their rapes.
I worry that I’m making Speak sound like an overly upsetting or dark book. To be fair, it is upsetting and dark, but it’s extremely hopeful, as well. When Melinda finally has another interaction with her attacker, the scene manages to be far scarier than anything I’ve ever read in a horror story, but it’s uplifting, too. After everything she’s been through, Melinda doesn’t stay silent forever. She speaks up when it really counts, not just for herself but for all the other girls in her school.
Speak manages to be educational without ever being moralizing. As Anderson says in the afterword, she regularly hears from boys who don’t understand why Melinda is so upset about being raped. These boys aren’t trying to be jerks; they literally don’t understand why rape is so painful, why it can ruin lives, how it can shame girls like Melinda into silence (of course, boys can be sexual assault victims, too). As a society, we don’t spend much time educating boys and men about rape. Most of our resources are dedicated to telling potential victims how to avoid rape (don’t go out alone, don’t accept drinks from strangers, etc…we’ve all heard it before), while boys often don’t even learn what, exactly, constitutes rape. While this breaks my heart, I’m so glad this book exists. I’m glad it’s taught in schools around the country (when it’s not being banned, that is), because it helps us all. It helps everyone understand the hurt and shame that can come along with sexual assault, and it helps victims understand that they aren’t alone. They have a voice, and it deserves to be heard.
-Even though she can’t express her feelings verbally, Melinda finds herself in art. Much like in other books, where characters find release in photography or drawing, Melinda connects with her art as the one way she can express herself.
-Speak was made into a movie starring Kristen Stewart, who I actually really like, despite (or maybe because of?) not really being that into Twilight. Also, the movie was filmed in my town, Columbus (shout out to Ohio! I’m sorry I just said “shout out.”). Have any of you seen the movie? Does it do the book justice?
-Laurie Halse Anderson is a marvelous writer who manages to make this book funny, despite the darkest-of-dark subject matter. She describes all the little indignities of high school, from ridiculous assemblies to clueless teachers, in a sardonic, relatable way.
-If you’ve been through what happened to Melinda, don’t hesitate to check out RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization. Please remember that rape is never, ever, ever your fault, no matter what you’re wearing, how much you drank, or how hard you fought back. It’s not something you have to keep a secret; just like Melinda, you have a voice, even if it takes a lot of courage for you to find it.
As always, I love to hear your suggestions for books you’d like to see in Young Adult Education. Find me on Twitter @KerryAnn, send me an email at email@example.com or leave a comment!
Image via Banned Reads Project