A blog about the amazing things teenagers do, about writing for teens, books for teens, and occasional forays into my world and the world of publishing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Review: SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson

SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, has been on my "to be read" list for a long time. Then on Sunday, September 19th, (just in time for Banned Book Week), Twitter went crazy. Everyone was posting about what a professor in Missouri had to say about SPEAK:

Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor of management at Missouri State University is cautioning parents of the Republic School District against what he refers to as "soft porn" books used in the curriculum, including Speak, which is about rape. --(School Library Journal, September 23, 2010)

This prompted a slew of Tweeters to put "Speak Loudly" around their Twitter icons in support of Laurie Halse Anderson and SPEAK.

When I heard about what was going on, I was determined to read this book and form my own opinion about it. (I'm ashamed to say, it took me until now to get to it.) Having now read it, I must say I am SHOCKED--completely SHOCKED that anything in this book could be construed as soft-porn. I keep wondering if maybe there's a different version of SPEAK out there that this man read.

And honestly, I have a pretty conservative take on what should or shouldn't go into young adult books. I recently had a long discussion with my agency-mate Miranda Kenneally (SCORE, Sourcebooks, 2011), about what is and isn't appropriate (sex-wise) for content in YA. I commented extensively on her blog post on the subject, (written for the YA-5 blog,), and I am planning my own blog post about it soon.

I am NOT in favor of banning books. I think most books are banned by uninformed people who haven't actually read/or don't understand the book. I am, however, in favor of parents being informed about what their kids are reading. (Um, that's why I mom-review books.) I'm also in favor of kids being given a choice to read something else if they're uncomfortable with the material they're asked to read.

BUT... SPEAK is not soft-porn by any stretch of the imagination. It is inspiring. It is real. It gives a voice to thousands of unheard victims.

Rape is a horrible, violent, heart-breaking crime. It happens. And it happens to people of all ages, even kids. We can't afford to pretend that it doesn't. We don't protect our kids when we refuse to acknowledge that bad things exist. We set them up to be victims. We set them up to be silent--exactly what this book is fighting against.


The main character, Melinda, is raped at a party just before she begins high school. She doesn't tell anyone what happened, in fact, she talks less and less as the story goes on. The book follows her through her freshman year of high school, as all of her friends desert her, and as she tries to come to terms with what happened. Even without the rape, this is a poignant story about the struggles any teen has trying to fit in and survive a crazy time of life. With the rape, it becomes an important story that should be told.

The writing and symbolism in this book are beautiful. It's a good read that tackles a hard subject with sensitivity and realism. I laughed and cried and hurt for Melinda. Even nearly 30 years later, I saw a piece of my high school self in her struggles.


I honestly didn't see anything, even in the two rape scenes, that would make me uncomfortable sharing this book with my daughter (she's 12). In fact, I feel an obligation to share this book with her. I will, however, make sure she's aware of the content and comfortable with it before I have her read it. (I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone under the age of twelve.) I felt like Laurie Halse Anderson handled both scenes well. As a reader I got a sense of how horrible they were, but the description wasn't graphic for either--nothing close to what I would consider soft-porn.

The portrayals of high school life were accurate to the point of being brutal. (Loved, and laughed out loud over "the top ten lies" they tell you in high school--so true.) There is some "language," and conversations of a sexual nature, (like the writing on the bathroom wall), but nothing over-the-top. And parents are kidding themselves if they have kids in high school and they think they're ignorant of that kind of language or conversation.

As a mom, one of my biggest fears is that something terrible will happen to my one of my kids and they'll be afraid to tell me about it. I actually address that issue in my book, TIGERSEYE, (Walker, tentatively 2012). For that reason, I feel like SPEAK would be an excellent book to read with my older kids (12 and 14 years old). When kids get into a bad situation they're often afraid that they'll get in trouble or be blamed, or that parents just won't understand. In this book, Melinda worries that some of the rape was her fault--she was drunk, and she had gone to the party behind her parents' backs.

I'm grateful for any book that I can use to open up a discussion of sensitive topics and how I would respond. The story give us common ground, and talking about fictional characters and situations is often easier than talking about real events.

Discussion Points for Kids and Parents:
(And some of the answers I think are important.)

  • Why did Melinda feel like she couldn't speak up about the rape?
  • Who could or should she have told in the beginning?
  • What could her parents have done so she would have been comfortable talking to them?
  • At what point in the story should the parents have worked harder to listen or figure out what was going on with Melinda? The session with the counselor when Melinda's grades were slipping and she had been cutting class. They didn't ever ask why, they just assumed laziness. (Ouch, I've been guilty of that.)
  • How could her friends have been more understanding/open/loyal and helped her speak up or get through this?
  • How important is popularity? How important is friendship and loyalty?
  • What ultimately lead to Melinda telling someone? She wanted to protect her friend.
  • Are their any guys like Andy at your school?
  • Tell me what you thought of this book.
  • Tell me some of the things that go on in your school.
If the message in this book for victims of sexual assault and teens in trouble is to SPEAK, then the message for parents is to LISTEN.

I loved this book. I'm in awe of Laurie Halse Anderson's writing and story telling skills, and in her ability to take a reader inside the mind of her charters.

Regarding the controversy over this book, I believe in letting an author "speak up" for her own work. Here is Laurie Halse Anderson's response to Wesley Scroggins' evaluation of her book.

So I want to know... If you've read it, what is your take on SPEAK? On banning books in general? On books for teens that have sensitive subjects?

Has a book like this ever helped you through a difficult time in your life of given you the courage to speak up?

***A quick addendum. A testament to what can happen when someone does speak up! Elizabeth Smart's Triumph Empowers victims.***


  1. Speak allowed me to survive high school. My father was really sick, my mom was busy taking care of him, and my brother was at college. And I was sexually assaulted. Twice. I never, ever would have made it to where I am today - a junior in college, strong, and planning on going into working with survivors of sexual assault - were it not for Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. I read Speak for the first time when I was 14, and was touched, but put it down on my shelf. After my first assault, I read the book probably over a hundred times - annotating it, bookmarking pages, drawing in the margins, carrying it around in my backpack and reading brief scenes in between classes to make me feel less alone. Speak saved my life; Speak improved my life. Keeping that from teenagers is cruel, wrong, and sexist - it keeps young people from knowing the reality of sexual violence, and keeps survivors alone with nothing to turn to.

  2. Great post!

    I come from a very conservative Christian town, and I remember my parents having a bible study thing at my house when I was five. I had a picture book called FANTASIA or something - you know, the Mickey Mouse wizardry book or whatever? I think it was a movie, too.

    Anyway, I remember this adult man who I really liked came over to me and chastised me for "having a book about sorcery."

    I felt so ashamed, because I had done something wrong.

    It was a Mickey Mouse picture book for goodness sake!

    I don't really have a point here except to show that adults and their ideas about what should or shouldn't be read by kids can have a profound impact on their lives.

    The same thing happened when HARRY POTTER first came out. I remember being 17 years old, and talking about it at church, and an older guy who was 18 at the time, a guy I respected, got on to me for reading a book about "magic and the devil" or something.

    It never stops.

    And I wish I'd had SPEAK and some other books when I was younger - they could've helped me deal with some bad stuff that happened (involving my church, no less).

  3. This book was captivating and very disturbing. The life of an anorexic is a tragic and painful life where even an apple can be seen as an enemy in the fight to stay thin. Lia's every meal consists of her calorie counting of every item on her plate, right down to the last pea. There were times where it was hard for me to keep reading because I just could not imagine what new horrible revelations awaited. Lia is so adept at fooling her parents and those around her with different techniques that insure that when she is weighed her weight seems much higher.

  4. You have a nice review! Here's mine: http://lorxiebookreviews.blogspot.com/2012/07/speak-by-laurie-halse-anderson.html Have a nice day!