If there is a canon for contemporary teen literature, Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson is in it. (Find it on Bookshop.) A Printz Award honor book and a National Book Award finalist in 1999, this book is, quite frankly, awesome.
The story follows Melinda Sordino during her first year in high school. Starting high school is hard enough, but for Melinda it’s even worse. Over the summer, Melinda became a social outcast and now watches the goings at school from the fringe. She also doesn’t talk to anyone if she can avoid it.
The reasons for Melinda’s shunning by the rest of the school and her reticence are revealed as the novel progresses and Melinda tries to define herself in light of that summer. Along the way, Melinda finds the outlet she needs in an unlikely place: her high school art room.
Anderson’s writing voice is utterly unique, making this novel a real experience to read. It is one of the few novels out there that is completely conversational while maintaining an absolutely realistic voice. Melinda’s narration is snappy and caustic. Being written in the present tense adds to the immediacy of the novel.
In addition to dealing with Melinda’s trauma and her healing process, this book addresses a lot of common issues for teens. Anderson aptly portrays what it feels like to be the outcast with no one to sit with on the first day of school. And how hard it is to realize that sometimes having no friend is better than having a bad one.
Strangely, for a novel where the narrator doesn’t speak to other characters, one of the best features of this novel is Anderson’s dialogue. Even though Melinda rarely has anything to say to other characters, the dialogue flows, Anderson making used of ellipsis and asides in the narration to fill in Melinda’s half of the “conversations.”
Even though Anderson is writing about a narrow experience, this is a book that everyone should read. Even if you don’t usually read “chick lit,” check out Speak for the excellent writing. I have never seen a character that sounds as real as Melinda, or a writing style as fresh as Laurie Halse Anderson’s.
A couple years ago, this book was made into a movie for the Lifetime network. If you plan on reading the novel, do so before you see the movie. The events of the story are much more powerful if you read it without knowing what’s coming up next.
Also, after you finish Speak, be sure to check out Catalyst–a novel set a few years after Speak in the same community/high school.
Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell