By Alexa Dumas
“You have to know what you stand for, not just what you stand against.”
Melinda seems like the typical freshman high school student: shy, anti-social and an outcast. This feeling seems to be elevated, as the reason for Melinda’s “outcast” status is due to her calling the police to break up a party she attended over the summer. What is the real reason she called? Why is she being shunned by her peers? Why will no one listen?
Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 novel, “Speak,” is a tale that Anderson felt was necessary to tell. The young adult novel shows the negative sides of adolescence, and how teenagers need community in order to thrive and navigate the new world they are about to enter.
“Speak” is set in the author’s hometown of Syracuse, New York. The novel is based on her own high school and young adult experience.
Melinda’s struggles are relatable, as her anxiety stems from how others perceive her, along with the awkwardness of freshman year. It is referenced that Melinda used to have a close friendship with a girl named Rachel Bruin, but that ended once Melinda called the police to break up the party they attended over the summer.
Melinda notes how Rachel was her best friend throughout their childhood, but it ended once Melinda made the phone call.
Not only does Melinda struggle at school, she also has a turbulent relationship with her parents. They lack empathy and don’t seem to care about what is going on with their daughter. They don’t seem to care why her grades are slipping, they just notice that she is not doing well in school. Melinda states that her being born was what stopped them from getting a divorce, but she wishes they did.
The only people that seem to notice that Melinda is struggling is her art teacher, Mr. Freeman. He encourages her to process her feelings through art, even though he doesn’t know Melinda’s full story.
Trees are a constant symbol within the novel, as Mr. Freeman gives Melinda an assignment to perfect her drawing of a tree. The tree is a symbol of growth, which goes along with Melinda’s character development, as she finally grows enough to speak up about what happened to her.
“Speak” can be triggering to some readers, as it is revealed that Melinda was raped by Andy Evans, a popular senior, at the party she attended over the summer. Throughout the novel, Andy is dehumanized, as he is referenced as “IT.” By not referring to his actual name, Melinda slowly takes her power back.
The rape took over Melinda’s life, and affected her relationships with her friends and parents, as they don’t believe her that it happened. Rachel especially doesn’t believe Melinda when she finally speaks up, as Andy is Rachel’s boyfriend. This makes the girl’s relationship even more complicated.
There are also references to self-harm within the novel, which is a result of Melinda’s lack of support. The novel shows how finding the courage to speak up about trauma can take someone time to do, but you must believe the truth they speak.
If it isn’t clear the reference of rape and sexual assault has marked the novel as banned. In states such as Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska and Oklahoma, parents and administrators challenged Anderson’s novel due to sexually explicit content, profanity, alcohol use and having anti-male themes.
Censoring novels that tackle adolescent sexual assault and rape is dangerous. Novels like “Speak” give survivors a voice, as society tries to silence victims. Without this novel in schools and libraries, readers who relate to Melinda may not have the courage to speak, as censorship can negatively affect how someone thinks about their trauma and life experience.
“Speak” gives a voice to a community of survivors. Anderson’s novel is a sad tale, but a necessary story to tell.