Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a multiple award winning book, but it is also listed by the American Library Association as one of the top 100 books challenged between 2000-2009. Every year several books are challenged and banned across the nation by individuals and organizations who believe the content of the books are inappropriate. In this review you will learn more about the book Speak, the challenges it has received, and what Laurie Halse Anderson and others have to say about the issue of censorship.
Speak: The Story
Melinda Sardino is a fifteen year old sophomore whose life is dramatically and permanently changed the night she attends an end of summer party. At the party Melinda is raped and calls the police, but doesn't get the opportunity to report the crime. Her friends, thinking she called to bust the party, shun her and she becomes an outcast.
Once vibrant, popular, and a good student, Melinda has become withdrawn and depressed. She avoids having to talk and doesn't take care of her physical or mental health. All her grades start to slide, except her Art grade, and she begins to define herself by small acts of rebellion such as refusing to give an oral report and skipping school. Meanwhile, Melinda's rapist, an older student, subtly taunts her at every opportunity.
Melinda doesn't reveal the details of her experience until one of her former friends begins to date the same boy who raped Melinda. In an attempt to warn her friend, Melinda writes an anonymous letter and then confronts the girl and explains what really happened at the party. Initially, the former friend refuses to believe Melinda and accuses her of jealousy, but later breaks up with the boy. Melinda is confronted by her rapist who accuses her of destroying his reputation. He attempts to assault Melinda again, but this time she finds the power to speak and screams loudly enough to be heard by other students who are nearby.
Speak: The Controversy and the Censorship
Since its publication release in 1999 Speak has been challenged on its content about rape, sexual assault and suicidal thoughts. In September of 2010 one Missouri professor wanted the book banned from the Republic School District because he considered the two rape scenes “soft pornography.” His attack on the book elicited a media storm of responses including a statement from the author herself in which she defended her book. (Source: Laurie Halse Anderson's Web site)
The American Library Association listed Speak as number 60 in the top one hundred books to be banned or challenged between 2000 and 2009. Anderson knew when she wrote this story that it would be a controversial topic, but she is shocked whenever she reads about a challenge to her book. She writes that Speak is about the "emotional trauma suffered by a teen after a sexual assault" and is not soft pornography. (Source: Laurie Halse Anderson's Web site)
In addition to Anderson's defense of her book, her publishing company, Penguin Young Readers Group, placed a full page ad in the New York Times to support the author and her book. Penguin spokeswoman Shanta Newlin stated, "That such a decorated book could be challenged is disturbing." (Source: Publisher's Weekly Web site)
Speak: Laurie Halse Anderson and Censorship
Anderson reveals in many interviews that the idea for Speak came to her in a nightmare. In her nightmare a girl is sobbing, but Anderson did not know the reason until she started to write. As she wrote the voice of Melinda took shape and began to speak. Anderson felt compelled to tell Melinda's story.
With the success of her book (a National Award finalist and a Printz Honor Award) came the backlash of controversy and censorship. Anderson was stunned, but found herself in a new position to speak out against censorship. States Anderson, “Censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” (Source: Banned Books Blog)
Anderson devotes a portion of her website to censorship issues and specifically addresses the challenges to her book Speak. She argues in defense of educating others about sexual assault and lists frightening statistics about young women who have been raped. (Source: Laurie Halse Anderson's Web Site)
Anderson is actively involved in national groups that battle censorship and book banning such as the ABFFE (American Booksellers for Free Expression), the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Freedom to Read Foundation.
Speak: My Recommendation
Speak is a novel about empowerment and it is a book that every teen, especially teen girls, should read. There is a time to be quiet and a time to speak out, and on the issue of sexual assault, a young woman needs to find the courage to raise her voice and ask for help. This is the underlying message of Speak and the message Laurie Halse Anderson is trying to convey to her readers. It must be made clear that Melinda's rape scene is a flashback and there are no graphic details, but implications. The novel is focused on the emotional impact of the act, and not the act itself.
By writing Speak and defending its right to voice an issue, Anderson has opened the door for other authors to write about real teen issues. Not only does this book deal with a contemporary teen issue, but it's an authentic reproduction of the teen voice. Anderson deftly captures the high school experience and understands the teen view of cliques and what it feels like to be an outcast.
I grappled with the age recommendations for some time because this is such an important book that needs to be read. It's a powerful book for discussion and 12 is an age when girls are changing physically and socially. However, I realize that because of the mature content, every 12 year old may not be ready for the book. Consequently, I recommend it for ages 14-18 and, in addition, for those 12 and 13 year olds with the maturity to handle the topic. The publisher's recommended ages for this book is 12 and up. (Speak, 2006. ISBN: 9780142407325)