Monday, September 09, 2013


Speak  by Laurie Halse Anderson

I read this book to help a high school freshman complete his summer English assignment.  I think it's a great pick for a 9th grade summer reading list.  Anderson plots this story out very well, covering the entire school year for her 13 year old, high school freshman protagonist. 

Melinda Sordino starts high school as the ultimate odd man out.  At a party over the summer, she called 911, and although, or maybe because, no one knows the real reason why, she is universally hated by everyone who knows who she is.  When she needed to speak, she couldn't, or didn't and now, she's kind of stuck.  She can't forget what happened, and she can't bring herself to talk about it.  Her silence is confused with apathy, disobedience, and attention seeking, and that's just the authority figures.  

At home, it's easy not to speak.  Melinda's family does most of its communicating by note, anyway.  While her parents absolutely notice that she says very little, they mostly consider it a passive aggressive teenage display. At school, she masters the shy smile and the sad shake of the head, to avoid having to speak in class and, while she manages to get by, it's not like everyone doesn't notice.  Among her peers this doesn't always work in her favor, while she is mostly invisible, as she intends, when the other students do take notice of her, she is increasingly thought to be a freak.  

I can see the appeal of this book for any student. It captures the horrors (real or perceived) of high school. Of course, in Melinda's case, she is a seriously broken girl who starts school friendless, depressed, terrified and despised.  In contrast, the one friend she does make, Heather, is a new kid, who starts friendless and faces the same first day of high school terrors as the others, but with a plan to make friends and find her place in the social and academic strata. The contrast makes Melinda's state all the more alarming.  

Beginning this book, I was a little concerned that Melinda's inability to take control of her situation would get annoying.  And, yes, I do know that sounds kind of heartless but,  the urge to grab some of these people in books by their little fictional shoulders and shake them, in the hopes they'll wise up and fix the messes they've made, is sometimes overwhelming.  Anderson never lets Melinda become annoying. She is one of the most tragic characters I've ever come across.

Now, for the things that bother me. They aren't about the book, it was very well written and even if you cringed at what Melinda was going through, you still knew you had to keep turning those pages. If she could survive it, then the reader can follow her right to the end.  No, my problems with the book are probably really just about me.  In one scene, the English teacher is discussing symbolism in The Scarlet Letter and one of the students is giving her a hard time. According to the teacher, Hawthorne was a literary genius and every single word is fraught with deeper meaning. According to the student, how could anyone know that hundreds of years later and who is to say if one interpretation is any more correct than any other.  In an essay after the end of the book, Anderson says she was that student.  I'll admit, I've been that student, too.  Then I studied more about literature and although, I haven't made it all the way to Hairwoman (the name Melinda assigns to the English teacher) and her beliefs that every word, every sentence is filled with underlying currents of symbol and meaning, I definitely know that a literal reader misses a lot, whether they know it or feel it.  

Later, Anderson discusses how glad she is that schools now concentrate so much more on contemporary texts. I agree that new literature is just as valuable as old, but I think the reading of those classics and the study of what  is going on, between the lines, beneath the words, is very important and shouldn't be thrown aside by the educational system.  I'm always wondering when I read a book, if the author is using these tools and how in depth they go in writing their stories.  Sure, there are plenty of books that leave me shaking my head, convinced the author didn't put nearly enough thought into the writing and the story at all.  And, here I go, again with John Green, the king of YA. I know it's way too fangirl to be tolerated, but the man has earned my respect and admiration by being, as the nerdfighters say, made of awesome.  It's true.  If you go and watch his vlogs about his writing on the youtube channel he shares with his brother Hank, you can see how he constructs his stories.  He absolutely uses all those authorly tools to build a rich and meaningful story. He plots out scenes so the feeling they give the readers contrast.  A teenager reading his books may not notice that it's happening, but gets the benefit from it anyway.   (To get an idea of what I mean, check out his literary criticism of Catcher in the Rye here)  

That's what I love about literature, not just books, but actual literary fiction.  You can just do a literal reading and get so much from a well told story. When you close the book, you take with you all that you learned and felt and experienced between those covers.  But, you can also dig deeper and see that there are layers of meaning that go far beneath the surface of the text.  I don't even know if all of it is conscious. If you are to believe Ray Bradbury, he claimed to have not realized some of the symbolic things that fill his Fahrenheit 451.  Sadly, I could not find the interview to link here.  I guess it's a good think I found all those free online courses on literature from MIT, I've got a lot more to learn about all of this and I can't wait to get started.

1 comment:

Berls said...

I read this book a few years ago as part of a college course for teaching literature at the grade school level and I remember really liking it and the way it dealt with complex issues. I think I felt it was geared towards students no younger than 8th grade though, since it got pretty deep. Great review - I'm glad you commented on the importance of classics! I agree that it's great to have contemporary literature, but classics are also incredibly important building blocks (at least in my opinion).