It is quite unusual for me to choose a young adult book to read or review for that matter. But something about this one tweaked my interest when shopping at Chapters/Indigo recently and as a result it has changed my whole reading perspective. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson came recommended by a staffer named Emily as you can see here. It also has garnered more awards than most authors accumulate in a lifetime of writing volumes of novels. This young adult book is one of the most compelling character studies I have seen since reading The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. (a new movie currently in theatres based on the bestseller. In Speak, the narrator is a young girl starting high school. Melinda Sordino, selectively mute, has stopped communicating in any meaningful way since she broke up a summer party by calling the cops. All of her friends hate her since she ruined the summer’s biggest social event. While most readers will probably be able to guess at the reasons behind the phone call, the author doesn’t reveal the details until a crucial point in the book. Melinda is traumatized, depressed and anxious. She slowly reveals details of why and how she came to be non responsive and disenfranchised from her parents and her former friends. Halse Anderson has done a remarkable job recreating the truly awful awkwardness of early grade nine and the strange but real high school environment. A mother of teenagers at the time she wrote this novel, she captures details with a wonderful mix of humour and pain, always realistically conveying atmosphere, setting and dialogue. Melinda is failing or flailing in most of her subjects. She is depressive to everyone except her parents, who do not stop working or admonishing her poor academic performance long enough to figure out what truly might be happening with their daughter. This is a sad, brave, book because it deals with mental illness and violence. But Speak is also ultimately a hopeful story that chooses to pull back the curtain that shields people from seeing mental illness as something that affects young people. Melinda’s high school is a place of refuge and terror, an escape and a prison. “The art room is one of the places I feel safe. I hum and don’t worry about looking stupid.” This is a book I will keep for my daughters to read when they are old enough to read it (I would estimate 12 and up). Speak conveys a powerful message about voice and truth, safety and the complex world of contemporary teenagers. It is precise and unflinching and it has opened my eyes to another genre of novel and the fact that there are some truly amazing authors writing young adult fiction.
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Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson is published by Penguin USA, 1999.
198 pages. $14 Canadian and $10 USA.