Banned Book Week Review: ‘Speak’ by Laurie Halse Anderson

This week we’re celebrating Banned Book Week. We will feature reviews from books that have been previously published, some of which are our favorites, and banned unceremoniously. We hope you will support banned authors and their works.

We begin with a review of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Speak_1st_Edition_Cover

This past July, Laurie Halse Anderson posted a blog entry titled “Ever wonder how the mind of a book banner works?” that linked to an article on Book Riot where Dr. Richard Sweir, an “activist” who tried to get her novel, Speak banned in Florida, decided to participate in the comments section. Dr. Sweir called Speak “child pornography” because the book deals with rape and he feels that having 8th grade students read the book is akin to child abuse. *Excuse me while I go in the corner and laugh* Through his comments, one is able to tell Dr. Sweir has not read the book because he argues back and forth that the rape scene is graphic in nature (it’s truly not) and that children should no be exposed to such violence. Luckily for the students, the school’s curriculum council decided to keep the novel stating, “We feel this book should remain as an end of 8th grade book selection, with an alternate selection provided. It provides our students with a guided, approach to think about some of the choices that will face many of them within ten weeks of 8th grade graduation, as they move into high school and are socializing with much older, more mature high school students.“

The principal’s statement is the exact same reason why I teach the book, in the Spring semester, with about 10 weeks to go until graduation. My students are excited about leaving middle school and heading into high school with media-induced visions of the high school experience. I use Speak to show them some of the realities of high school and to have them be mentally prepared should they experience any of the behaviors expressed in the book. Speak gets my students talking about rape, bullying, communicating with parents, friendship, and finding one’s voice. My students love spending time discussing the book and I always have one student say “Miss, this book is real.”

Speak is the story of Melinda Sordino’s freshman year where she is bullied for having called the cops to a party over the summer. Scarred by the rape, Melinda essentially becomes mute, unable to speak to her friends or her parents. Her grades fall and Melinda closes deeper into herself as she struggles to come to terms with what happened to her. The novel is split into four sections, each one a quarter of the school year, ending with the posting of her grades. Melinda writes with a sarcastic wit about the different type of students, the inattention of the teachers save for her art teacher Mr. Freeman, and the different events that occur within a school year. At the same time, Melinda writes of her old friends and the girl she used to be with such an aching heartbreak that the reader can truly see how damaged she is by the rape and even more damaged by the fact she can’t speak to anyone, especially her parents. Melinda eventually finds her voice, and does so in the best way that has the reader cheering.

Speak was Halse Anderson’s debut novel in 1999 and has been a National Book Award Finalist, a New York Times bestseller, and a Printz Honor book. The book has touched the lives of thousands of students who have written Halse Anderson, thanking her for giving voice to their pain, their stories. Some of my students, who have also known someone who has been raped or experienced it themselves, have told me how the book has changed their lives. Speak is a powerful novel that needs to be read by teenagers trying to navigate their changing world as they leave childhood and become adults, including the ugliness that comes with it.

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