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Review of Speak

Speak Speak
by Laurie Halse Anderson
Middle School, High School     Farrar     198 pp.     g
10/99     ISBN 0-374-37152-0     $16.00

Speaking out at the “wrong” time — calling 911 from a teen drinking party — has made Melinda a social outcast; now she barely speaks at all. A conversation with her father about their failed Thanksgiving dinner goes as follows: “Dad: ‘It’s supposed to be soup.’ / Me:      / Dad: ‘It tasted a bit watery, so I kept adding thickener . . . .’/ Me:     .” While Melinda’s smart and savvy interior narrative slowly reveals the searing pain of that 911 night, it also nails the high-school experience cold — from “The First Ten Lies They Tell You” (number eight: “Your schedule was created with your needs in mind”) to cliques and clans and the worst and best in teachers. The book is structurally divided into four marking periods, over which Melinda’s grades decline severely and she loses the only friend she has left, a perky new girl she doesn’t even like. Melinda’s nightmare discloses itself in bits throughout the story: a frightening encounter at school (“I see IT in the hallway . . . . IT sees me. IT smiles and winks”), an artwork that speaks pain. Melinda aches to tell her story, and well after readers have deduced the sexual assault, we feel her choking on her untold secret. By springtime, while Melinda studies germination in Biology and Hawthorne’s symbolism in English, and seeds are becoming “restless” underground, her nightmare pushes itself inexorably to the surface. When her ex-best-friend starts dating the “Beast,” Melinda can no longer remain silent. A physical confrontation with her attacker is dramatically charged and not entirely in keeping with the tone of the rest of the novel, but is satisfying nonetheless, as Melinda wields a shard of broken glass and finds her voice at last to scream, “No!” Melinda’s distinctive narrative employs imagery that is as unexpected as it is acute: “April is humid . . . . A warm, moldy washcloth of a month.” Though her character is her own and not entirely mute like the protagonist of John Marsden’s So Much to Tell You, readers familiar with both books will be impelled to compare the two girls made silent by a tragic incident. The final words of Marsden’s book are echoed in those of Speak, as Melinda prepares to share her experience with a father-figure art teacher: “Me: ‘Let me tell you about it.’” An uncannily funny book even as it plumbs the darkness, Speak will hold readers from first word to last.

From the September/October 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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