It was such a treat composing that piece on my favorite novel, The Outsiders, a few months ago that I now want to do another write-up on another book I hold in high regard. This one may shock some of you.
These days, teen fiction are dominated by a variety of series’. You’ve got the popular Twilight series, The Hunger Games series, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and so forth. So much emphasis is put on friendships, romance, overcoming obstacles, and sometimes violence between adolescents. Sure, a young person experiences these things but sometimes, you have to look real hard to find a standalone story that truly captures the life of an teenager struggling to find their voice. I found that book over a decade ago and it’s called Speak.
Published in 1999, Speak was the debut novel from Laurie Halse Anderson, a New York based author who specializes in children’s books and young adult novels. While Anderson wasn’t a teenager writing characters her age like what S.E. Hinton did with “The Outsiders,” in her late 30s, she did a great job capturing the essence of the trials and tribulations that a young girl can go through starting out in the new territory that is high school. The book also portrays the typical quarrels of high school life with cliques, assignments, tests of friendship, and defiance. After its release, the book took the New York Times’ Bestsellers List by storm. It even nabbed the paper’s Paperback Best Children’s Seller on two separate occasions, the latest being in 2005, six years after its initial release.
Taking place in snowy Syracuse, New York, Speak places the reader into the mind of Melinda Sordino, an incoming high school freshman harboring an awful secret. The incident that happened to her the prior summer has left her an introverted mute, saying very few words. Her friends, especially her ex-bff, Rachel, have all cut off communication with her due to the event’s consequences where the police were called. Think it can’t get any worse? Well, her parents don’t communicate with her either. Unable to close that chapter in her life, the guilt continues to hang over her and gets her in trouble several times with faculty at Merryweather High School. Her inability to talk to anyone about it or interact with others has helped her slide into a deep depression. She slowly becomes friendly with her lab partner, David, and a romantic relationship is teased between them. She also starts to bond with her art teacher, Mr. Freeman, who seems to be the only adult who understands her. Between the two and Melinda’s new friend Heather (who as it turns out, isn’t who she seems), we slowly see her transformation from a lonely outcast to confident young woman. Now what happens when Rachel starts seeing the guy who is the sole purpose of Melinda’s misery from that horrific summer party? Can this finally prompt Melinda to open up and get everything off her chest? Well, you’re going to have to check out the book to find that out, I’m afraid.
Admittedly, I was a little older than the target audience when I read Speak for the first time. For a book targeted towards high schoolers, I didn’t check it out until my freshman year of college. I was on a bit of a reading kick when I first started college due to my alma mater being directly across the street from a Barnes & Noble. I checked out a wide variety of books from such authors as Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis, but I stumbled upon this one, as it was prominently featured in the store. I read the back cover and decided “what could go wrong?”. Well, after finishing Speak in about a week, it sort of reminded me of my high school days. While I didn’t have a traumatic experience like Melinda or ever felt there was no one out there that liked me, I sort of related to the character since I was a bit introverted myself when I started high school as well and didn’t really put myself out there for a lot of people to know. When you first enter school, it’s an entire new experience, with new surroundings and new people and as a kid, that can be a bit overwhelming if you’re going at it alone. There were no cheesy romances with the undead or dystopian societies, just real people.
As I stated before, one of Laurie Halse Anderson’s fortes was young adult literature and Speak was only the beginning of a trend of exploring the teenage female. Her follow-up, 2002’s Catalyst details a young woman’s life right before she sets out to college and her 2009 effort, Wintergirls follows a pair of girls each struggling with an eating disorder. In addition, Anderson has also composed books of historic fiction and is still writing to this day.
A feature film adaptation of Speak was produced in 2004 starring Kristen Stewart as Melinda and Steve Zahn as Mr. Freeman. It was a decent interpretation of the story but it lacked a sense of depth overall. Other than Melinda, there’s no reason to care about the rest of the characters which I attribute that to Stewart’s (who I always thought was a pretty good actress outside of the Twilight films, which have given her a bad rep) performance as she does a great job of nailing down Melinda Sordino. The film was directed by Jessica Sharzar who is the executive producer of the popular horror anthology series, American Horror Story. It premiered at the 2004 Sundance film festival and didn’t receive a theatrical run, instead premiering on the Showtime and Lifetime networks simultaneously in 2005. I learned of the film’s production when I was maybe three-quarters into the book and saw it was filmed already. I awaited its release but a date was never announced or seemed to be on the radar so I kind of forgot about it. When it debuted in the Fall of ‘05, I was excited but ultimately let down. Not a bad film but certainly not great either.