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Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

14 Apr

1999, Penguin, ISBN 978-0-14-241473-6

Plot Summary: Melinda Sordino should be enjoying her freshman year of high school; instead, she finds herself ostracized because she called the police after she was raped at a party she was at over the summer. No one knows about the rape – they just know that Melinda ruined their good time.

Her best friend turns on her. Her rapist, an older student at the school, winks at her, tries to talk to her, enjoying the power he feels he has over her. Her parents attribute her withdrawl, skipping school and failing grades to a plea for attention and show no sympathy. Melinda copes by blocking much of the night’s events out and stops speaking almost entirely. One of the few people she seems to be able to speak with is her lab partner, David, a student who has no problem speaking up for himself and urges her to be more assertive. When her former best friend begins dating her rapist, Melinda knows that she must find the courage to break her silence.

Critical Evaluation: Written in the first person, Speak is told from Melinda’s point of view. The reader gets her sense of isolation as she goes through the motions of day-to-day living, haunted by her rape but not quite dealing with it. It’s on the periphery of her memory, but she tries to move past it on her own rather than relive it. The most developed character we encounter is Melinda, but it isn’t an issue – she’s the person we need to know best; we know whatever she needs us to know about the other people around her. She has a scathing wit that endears her to the reader and shows a glimpse of the pre-assault Melinda. Readers may know someone who has been assaulted, have been assaulted themselves, or need to understand what happens in the aftermath of an assault, and Speak is a book that should be read by teens, parents, and educators alike to facilitate conversations. The 10th Anniversary edition of the book includes a list of resources for sexual assault survivors, a discussion guide, and the author’s comments about censorship and on Speak ten years later.

Reviews: Booklist (starred review): “Melinda’s sarcastic wit, honesty, and courage make her a memorable character whose ultimate triumph will inspire and empower readers.”

The Horn Book (starred review): “An uncannily funny book even as it plumbs the darkness, Speak will hold readers from first word to last.”

Kirkus Reviews (pointed review) “An uncannily funny book even as it plumbs the darkness, Speak will hold readers from first word to last.”

Awards: Finalist, National Book Award (1999); Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Golden Kite Award for Fiction (2000); Horn Book Fanfare Best Book of the Year (2000); American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults (2000);  Printz Honor Book (2000); Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults (2000); Fiction QUick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (2000); New York Times Paperback Children’s Best Seller (2001, 2005)

Reader’s Annotation: A high school freshman tries to come to terms with the aftermath of an assault at an end of summer party.

Author Information: Author Laurie Halse Anderson writes realistic fiction for teens. Her website offers links to her blog, media, She also provides book club information for teachers and students interested in discussing her books event information, in addition to advice on addressing book challenges, research, and the writing process. She has a discussion board where teachers can collaborate and talk with the author. She also has a Facebook page.

Genre: Realistic fiction. Subgenres: Teen issues, assault.

Booktalking Ideas: Is there anything that would make you stop speaking? Why do you think Melinda endures the scorn of her former friends and classmates rather than tell everyone why she called the police at the party? Why won’t she tell her parents?

Reading Level/Interest Age: 13+

Challenge Issues/Defense: Rape. Defense: This isn’t a glorification or a story of rampant teen sexuality. Books like Anderson’s reach out to teens and let them know that yes, these things do happen, and if it has happened to one of them or a friend of theirs, that they can seek help. Anderson received comments from male teens saying that they never understood why girls were so upset about being sexually assaulted until they read Speak. This is a book about survival, a book about depression, and a book about finding one’s voice.

Why did you include this book in the titles you selected?

A friend of mine read this book almost a decade ago when the book club we worked for featured it. She told me how amazing it was and how I should read it. I always said I’d get to it, but somehow never did. Taking this class gave me the chance to rectify that. And as the mother of two boys, one of whom will be a teenager very soon, I felt like I should make it my business to read this book.

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