Laurie Halse Anderson and the Enduring Legacy of Speak
By: Rebecca Slocum
Today is Laurie Halse Anderson’s 57th birthday. Anderson is the bestselling author of several novels, including Speak, Twisted, Chains, Wintergirls, The Impossible Knife of Memory, Fever 1793, and more. Though I’ve read and loved many of her books, today I want to talk about the first book of hers I ever read.
I’ve always gravitated towards realistic fiction that featured dark or heavy subject matter: Crank by Ellen Hopkins, Tenderness by Robert Cormier, Forged by Fire by Sharon M. Draper, If I Should Die Before I Wake by Han Nolan. While as a child, I didn’t yet quite grasp the concept of reading books to better understand the world around me, I knew that novels that delved into topics such as addiction, violence, race, sexuality expanded my narrow view of the world I lived in- quiet, middle-class, white, Christian.
I was in 5th grade when I first picked up Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson at my school library. Looking back, I am surprised my conservative Catholic school even had a copy of it; our librarian tended to select “safe” and neutral novels without any of the important diversity we see in today’s YA books. Speak most certainly does not fall into either of these categories. First published in 1999, Speak is about Melinda, a young girl who was raped before the summer of her freshman year of high school. When she called the police with the intention to report it, she lost her words and was unable to speak. The police then come and break up the party, and the resulting consequences for some of the students spotlights Melinda as a snitch. She walks into her first day of high school friendless, an outcast; and even worse, she is forced to face her attacker daily. Unable to process her assault, she falls into a depression and doesn’t speak during the entire school year, only communicating through her art, until she is finally able to tell the truth about what happened to a former friend and her art teacher.
This enduring novel still sits with me, almost 20 years later. I’ve never experienced anything close to what Melinda went through, but I know it is an all too common experience for women all over the world. Anderson, who is a survivor of rape herself, says there is not a day that goes by where someone doesn’t reach out to her to tell their story of survival. Sadly, Speak is also a frequently censored book. In response to her book’s many challenges, Anderson remarks,
“Some people are uncomfortable talking about rape. It makes them feel awkward or powerless, or ashamed. They often can’t put their feelings about it into words. They find it easier to avoid the discussion. These are the kinds of people who try to remove Speak from the classroom.”
It is frustrating when someone’s initial response to difficult topics is to ignore or remove them. It is especially frustrating when an adult makes this decision for a child. 44% of rape victims are under the age of 18. While Speak certainly speaks to adults as well as teens, it is written from an adolescent perspective. It is a teenager who experiences this assault, and it is a teenager who finds the courage to eventually speak out against it. If a teenage survivor is looking for a character to relate to their experiences, it is likely they would find comfort and strength with Melinda. When an adult attempts to or succeeds in removing these types of books from a collection, it sends the message that sexual assault is not to be discussed. That message is not only dangerous, it also counteracts a common question to survivors who speak out after their assault: “Why didn’t you report it sooner?” Stories such as Melinda’s quietly open the conversation for survivors to tell their story, even if it’s through an email to the author, their artwork, or social media. They also allow those who haven’t experienced such trauma to catch a glimpse of the pain, shame, and fear that survivors feel.
Speak was recently republished as a graphic novel, illustrated by award winning artist Emily Carroll. The stunning artwork combined with Anderson’s words truly brings the story to life in a completely different way. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Anderson stated that she hopes this new edition will help “new readers come away with a better understanding of the main character’s pain.”
Now, I know this post probably seems like one gigantic political statement. It’s not. I started writing this post before the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court began. My hope in writing this post is to encourage fellow librarians to not shy away from recommending or even featuring Speak and other stories dealing with sexual violence. These books serve as a lifeline, a helping hand, a beacon of hope to those who feel alone and isolated. No matter where you stand politically after the last few weeks, I think it is more important than ever to provide support for those who have experienced rape and sexual assault. As librarians and educators, we are in a unique position to provide support in the form of relatable characters, plot lines that mirror their pain, and ultimately, the potential for triumph in the wake of tragedy.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.
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