YA, or young adult, novels can be a dime a dozen: often, they try to prove their "cool quotient" with overuse of slang, references to blink-and-you'll-miss-them celebrities of the moment, and shocking stories of teen drama. Laurie Halse Anderson, however, is one YA novelist who refuses to write down to her audience -- her books, such as the award-winning Fever 1793, address themes and issues relevant to today's teenager while engaging readers far removed from the trials and tribulations of life at 16. Speak, Anderson's first novel, is a moving tale about the struggle to find one's voice and identity in a society where few take the time to truly listen.
Melinda Sordino, a rather unlikely heroine, is a typical teenage girl entering her freshman year of high school: worried about her appearance, frustrated with school rules, fed up with out-of-touch parents, and more concerned with the ups and downs of the social scene than her academic progress. Typical, that is, in every way but one: Melinda is a social pariah. Though many teenagers feel left-out and singled-out by their peers -- the phrase teen angst certainly didn't invent itself -- Melinda is a special case. Her classmates hate her because she ratted them out the previous summer at a big party:
The girl behind me taps me on the shoulder with her long black nails. She had heard Heather introduce me. "Sordino?" she asks. "You're Melinda Sordino?"
I turn around. She blows a black bubble and sucks it back into her mouth. I nod. Heather waves to a sophomore she knows across the gym. The girl pokes me harder. "Aren't you the one who called the cops at Kyle Rodgers's party at the end of the summer?"
A block of ice freezes our section of the bleachers. Heads snap in my direction with the sound of a hundred paparazzi cameras. I can't feel my fingers. I shake my head. Another girl chimes in. "My brother got arrested at that party. He got fired because of the arrest. I can't believe you did that. Asshole." (27-8, Penguin Group 1999 edition)
What her classmates don't know, however, is that Melinda had a perfectly good reason for calling the cops that night -- a reason that had little to do with being a goody-two-shoes and a reason that Melinda wishes she could erase from her memory. Instead, she remains quiet -- and suffers the humiliation and regret in solitude. (Anderson admits in an afterword that she had wanted to write the novel with Melinda completely voiceless, which turned out to be a logistical nightmare; instead, the narration is primarily advanced through internal monologue, and Melinda says very little to anyone other than herself.)
As Melinda progresses through her freshman year, she comes in contact with members of all cross-sections of teen existence: in her words, "Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, Human Waste, Eurotrash, Future Fascists of America, Big Hair Chix, the Marthas, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, Shredders" (4). She also encounters both friends and foes among her teachers -- and it is here that the underlying significance of the book becomes apparent. Just as Melinda's last name has a symbolic significance -- sordino is "muted" in Italian -- the names of her teachers and the assignments she completes have a deeper meaning, too. Mr. Freeman, Melinda's art teacher, is the only adult in the novel who makes a real attempt to get to know her, and his requirement that her major project for his class be based around trees, a symbol of both solitude and the cycle of life, is intended as a gift to the astute reader: "symbolic foreshadowing," as Melinda's English teacher "Hairwoman" would say.
And speaking of English class, Melinda's frustration over the book The Scarlet Letter is equally laden with significance: Melinda's parallels to Hester Prynne, a young social outcast bearing the weight of a painful secret within a vindictive, shaming society, are not accidental. Unlike the writers of so many fluffy YA books, Anderson has dropped tiny hints and treasures throughout her novel, and has woven timeless themes and concepts into her easy-to-read prose, that Speak becomes more like the canonical works Melinda herself dreads and less like the trashy romances that fly off the shelves in the teen section of the library -- and yet appeals to readers looking for either type of read. In fact, a quick perusal of Anderson's own website turned up a lesson-plan idea for teaching The Scarlet Letter and Speak concurrently, an idea that I incorporated into my own classroom with great success.
Speak is not perfect. There are places where some of the symbolism becomes heavy-handed. The ending of the novel, while ultimately quite satisfying in a "girl power" sort of way, tends towards the cliche. But these are small faults within a novel that will leave readers just like the tender, fragile young heroine they will grow to love: speechless.
Final Verdict: ***1/2