Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

As a (former) high school English teacher, I was always trolling the YA section of bookstores – independent and chains – to keep my finger on the pulse of what kids were reading in ‘those days’…  Somehow, in 2000, serendipity struck and I selected Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson off the shelf, took it home, and devoured it.  Immediately.

It instantly transported me back to my own high school experience.  The naïve perception of ninth graders was certainly something with which I could relate.  The heartbreaking story of Melinda is told with such honesty and raw emotion, I think it’s a universal experience of adolescents who are desperately trying to make sense of their lives, their parents, and the mostly cruel setting of high school.

I loved the structure of the book and how it’s set up in the four major chunks of a school year; I loved how the weather is accurately described and how it played into the character’s lives and actions.  Growing up in Buffalo, NY and the setting taking place just outside of Syracuse, I could relate to the long winter and the thrill at the signs of spring.  I also loved how Melinda ‘graded’ herself at the end of each quarter – her self- image given a quantitative value.  How do we see ourselves?  And, how would we grade ourselves in life?  Good questions.

Beyond the trauma of Melinda getting raped and feeling guilt and confusion is the basic theme of Melinda finding her voice.  What an essential journey for all adolescents.  I jotted questions in the margins, highlighted phrases like crazy and hoped that I’d be able to share this with students!  It dawned on me that I had not read a book like this since I was in high school…but, what I read for enjoyment was totally and completely disconnected from what I ‘studied’ in literature class.  Why?  Why is that? I wondered if the experience was simply history repeating itself for my own students.  As an adult and a teacher, I’d come to love the classic tales of literature, but what if my students were just as disconnected as I was back then?  What if, despite my quirky sense of humor, and dramatic lessons, they hated English class?

Unfortunately, since the curriculum at my school was set (in stone) I wasn’t able to directly implement the text into my formal teaching, but I recommended it left and right to ANY student who lacked an independent reading selection.  They eagerly consumed it!  Through tears and some laughter, we informally discussed the plight of Melinda, the cliques at her school (and ours), and we talked about the powerful writing of Ms. Anderson.  I knew the students loved it because the book never seemed to make it back to my classroom library, it would just get passed from one student to another and another…even after buying two additional copies, I frequently realized it was never in my room.

When I left the high school classroom, I feared that I would no longer have the opportunity to discuss this amazing book.  Now, that I am teaching English Education courses, I consistently include it on the required reading list of my English Methods course.  It’s just as powerful now, over 10 years later, with adults in my classroom as it was with my ninth graders.  They are likewise moved by the emotional tale of Melinda Sordino as we discuss the role of the teachers in the novel; they find their own ‘teacher’ voice as we chat about this novel.  Some are shocked to realize that the young adult genre has evolved and is chock full of amazing novels like Speak.

I share Laurie Halse Anderson’s website with them and tell them how I’ve had the opportunity to meet her at NCTE’s annual conferences…I even show them some pictures to prove it!  Lastly, I share her powerful ‘found poem’ called LISTEN as I try to impress upon them the value & the power of this book since its publication in 1999.

If you haven’t seen this/heard this, here’s the link to the video clip:

As teachers, it’s second nature to think about connecting our students with the right books at the right times…but, I’ve realized that this book came to me at a critical point in my teaching career and truly impacted the way I looked at literature for young adults.  Speak has helped me find my own voice as an educator, as a woman, and as a mom.  Let’s not forget the ways in which young adult literature impacts us ‘grown ups’ as well!

Pauline Schmidt is a former teacher, turned teacher educator.  She has lived and taught in Western New York since 1995.  She will be relocating to West Chester, PA this summer with her husband, children, and TONS of books!  She is thrilled to start the next phase of her teaching adventure as an Assistant Professor at West Chester University this fall.