“Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson is a Young Adult Novel that was published in 1999.
Since it’s publication, “Speak” has received both critical acclaim and censorship. The novel was a New York Times Best-Seller the year it was released and it was a National Book Award finalist as well as the winner of the 2000 ALA Best Book for Young Adults award. However, because of the novel’s mature subject matter, it was ranked number 60 on the ALA’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged books between 2000-2009.
The novel tells the story of a teenage girl named Melinda who begins the novel as a awkward and unpopular highschooler. Melinda is being ostracized for an unknown incident in which she called the police and broke up a party. Later in the book, it is revealed that Melinda was raped by a senior at the party. She now deals with the trauma and struggles to tell someone about what happened to her, especially after she discovers that her rapist attends her school.
The novel was adapted into a movie in 2004 starring Kristen Stewart.
The narrator begins the book by describing her bus ride to school. She is nervous about going to school and has a stomachache. She feels awkward and like she has “entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude.” The narrator used to be part of a group called the “Plain Janes” with her friends, but the other members of the group have since abandoned her. She notices other students giving her mean looks and laughing at her behind her back. In particular, the narrator’s former best friend, Rachel is laughing at her. She thinks about how she wishes she could tell Rachel the truth.
At a school assembly, Rachel mouths the words “I hate you” at the narrator. The narrator then bites her lip and draws blood. A teacher who the narrator refers to as “Mr. Neck” tells her to take a seat. She sits down next to a girl who introduces herself as “Heather from Ohio”. The narrator summarizes the assembly by calling it “The First Ten Lies They Tell You In High School”. The lies include, “We are here to help you” and “These will be the years you look back on fondly.”
The narrator goes to her English class and refers to her teacher as “Hairwoman” for her vibrant black and orange hair. Hairwoman gives all of the students a journal that they are supposed to write in daily. During lunch, someone throws a spoonful of mashed potatoes at the narrator and she runs out of the lunchroom. In the hallway, she runs into Mr. Neck and considers explaining to him what happened but decides against it. He tells her that he thinks she is “trouble” and that he will be keeping an eye on her.
After lunch, the narrator goes to Art class with her teacher, Mr. Freeman, who she likes. Mr. Freeman tries to inspire his students by telling them that art is important and showing them how to find inspiration. He gives out slips of paper from a globe that have a word that each student is supposed to use to inspire them to make an art piece. The narrator pulls out a piece of paper with the word “tree”.
For the next two weeks, the narrator eats at lunch with Heather. Her old friends are still not speaking to her. Other kids in the school push her down in the hallway and act aggressive toward her when they show her any attention at all. At home, the narrator finds a note from her mother telling her to order dinner for herself. Her mother is a manager at a clothing store called Effert’s. It is at this point that the reader learns that the narrators name is Melinda. Melinda eats pizza until she hears her father come home and goes to her room so that she doesn’t have to speak to him.
In her room, Melinda looks in her mirror and does not like what she sees. She chews her lips again. The next day in school, Melinda sees Rachel in the bathroom. Rachel has changed her name to Rachelle and is spending her time with foreign exchanged students. Melinda tries to talk to Rachel, who ignores her. Melinda realizes that she is angry at Rachel for never asking her why she did what she did (which still has not been revealed to the reader). Rachel is friends with a beautiful foreign exchange student who Melinda refers to as “Greta-Ingrid.”
The next day, Melinda ducks through a random door to escape Mr. Neck asking her for homework and discovers that the room is a disused janitor’s closet. She is excited to find somewhere to hide from everyone at school. Later, Heather convinces Melinda to attend a Homecoming pep rally despite her hesitation. While at the rally, a girl sitting behind Melinda asks her if she is Melinda Sordino. When Melinda confirms that she is, the girl asks her if she was the one that called the cops at Kyle Rodgers party a few weeks earlier. Other students overhear the conversation and one calls Melinda an “asshole”. She says that her brother was arrested that night. Melinda wants to tell the girl that there is more to the story than she realizes, but she keeps quiet. She can’t even “look at that part of herself”.
When the pep rally starts getting noisy, Melinda puts her head into her hands and screams but no one can hear her. During the pep rally, the girl behind Melinda knees her in the back and the other girl whose brother was arrested pulls her hair. Melinda watches the cheerleaders and wonders how they manage to create lives where they have sex with lots of people but still appear to be virginal and pure. After the pep rally, someone pushes Melinda and she falls off the bleachers.
Melinda’s parents lecture her about her falling grades. Melinda does not say anything and leaves the dinner table to go to her room. Her parents fight with each other and she turns on loud music to drown it out. Melinda focuses on trying harder in school. She hopes that her brilliant lab partner in science class, David can help her. David does not get bothered by bullies and Melinda wonders why.
At Halloween, Melinda stays home and watches the other kids trick-or-treat in her neighborhood. The year before she and her friends in the Plain Janes went out together dressed as witches. Heather joins an inclusive group in school called “The Marthas” and she asks Melinda to help her decorate the faculty lounge for Thanksgiving. When the other Marthas see Melinda they think that she is odd and one of them asks what is wrong with her chapped lips. Melinda runs out of the room and cries in the bathroom until she is sure that school is over. She washes her face in the sink and tries to scrub away her facial features.
Out in the hall, Melinda sees someone that she refers to as “IT”. She is shocked that IT goes to her school and wishes that this was a dream that she could wake up from. When IT sees her, he smiles and winks. Melinda wants to vomit but feels that her “lips are sewn together.”
Melinda gets her report card and, while she gets an A in art, the rest of her grade is mostly C’s. Melinda’s parents make her stay late at school to get tutoring but she only spends her time in the disused janitors closet. Melinda puts up a poster of Maya Angelou in the closet. It was given to her by the librarian who told her that Angelou was one of the best American writers.
Melinda has been having more trouble talking and she has been clenching her teeth in her sleep. She wants to tell her secret but she knows that it wont get rid of the horrible memory.
One day, Mr. Neck arrives in class angry and tells the students that his son missed out on a firefighter job because the job was given to an immigrant and complains of “reverse discrimination”. Mr. Neck goes on an anti-immigration rant that offends many of the students. Melinda’s lab partner, David stands up and leaves the class in protest.
Melinda’s mother decides that she is going to cook Thanksgiving dinner, despite the fact that she has been very stressed at work lately. Unfortunately, her mother forgets to thaw the turkey and the parents fight over this. Melinda’s father tries to salvage the dinner by making some kind of turkey soup that Melinda thinks is gross. He ends up giving Melinda money to order pizza. The next day, Melinda takes the turkey’s bones to art class and makes a motif of a tree out of them. Mr. Freeman is impressed by her art.
During the next English class, David brings a tape recorder and records Mr. Neck’s lecture. Mr. Neck glares at David but does not deviate from the approved lecture. Melinda hears that David’s parents hired a lawyer and are considering suing the school. This is why David is recording Mr. Neck’s lectures now. Melinda thinks that David is her hero for standing up for himself.
Heather is upset that The Marthas seem to be ignoring her. She gives Melinda earrings for Christmas and Melinda thinks that she will have to buy her something now. Melinda’s parents give her a sketchpad and a charcoal pencil for Christmas and she is pleased that they noticed her taking an interest in art. She wonders if she should tell them her secret but doesn’t know how to begin. Unfortunately Melinda is so overwhelmed that she misses her chance to thank them and they leave the room.
When she goes back to school, Melinda impresses her gym teacher and the other students by excelling at making foul shots in basketball. The gym teacher tells Melinda that her grades are too poor to be on the basketball team but Melinda does not want to play sports anyway. But she is able to show the boy’s team how to make foul shots and is pleased to be good at something. The gym teacher asks Melinda to tutor the boys and she shrugs in agreement but thinks to herself that she probably wont show up.
Heather begs Melinda to help her illustrate posters to get back in The Marthas good graces. In Biology class, Melinda is asked to dissect a frog. While she is cutting open the frog, she has a flashback to what happened to her at the party and faints. David tells her that she banged her head on the lab table and Melinda is taken to the hospital for stitches. She wonders if she is going to be put in a psychiatric hospital. She thought if she didn’t tell anyone what happened to her, it would go away but that plan is not working.
Heather gets a job modeling at the mall and Melinda wonders if she should become a model one day because it might keep anyone from putting their hands on her. But she does not want to starve herself like Heather has started doing. Melinda begins working on the posters for Heather in her abandoned closet. Melinda begins hanging the posters herself, since Heather is busy modeling. When she is hanging the posters, the guy that she calls IT sneaks up behind her and whispers “Freshmeat” in her ear. Melinda gets nausea and runs out of the hallway.
Melinda’s parent hear how bad her grades have gotten and ground her. Melinda writes a note saying that she is going to run away, but her mother finds her later sleeping in her closet. Melinda’s mother gives her a pillow. Melinda uses a paperclip to cut lines into her wrist. When her mother sees them she tells her that she doesn’t have time for this and that suicide is for cowards.
At lunch the next day, Heather falls out with The Marthas again. One of The Marthas is excited to talk to a boy named Andy Evans. Melinda realizes that Andy Evans is IT. The Marthas gossip about Andy Evans and how he is “dangerous” while Melinda struggles to continue eating. Andy comes to the table and Melinda rushes to the bathroom and vomits. Heather does not come to check on her.
Melinda revives another report card and her grades are now D’s. One day, Melinda wakes late and has to walk to school. She bumps into Andy Evans and he offers her a bite of the doughnut that she is eating. She runs away from him. She decides to skip school that day.
Heather tells Melinda that she no longer wants to be friends with her and that she thinks that Melinda needs professional help. Melinda understands, since no one popular would want to befriend Heather as long as they are friends. Heather tells her that she has “a reputation” but doesn’t answer when Melinda tries to ask more.
On Valentine’s Day, Heather gives Melinda a card that wishes her luck and returns the friendship necklace that Melinda gave her. Melinda rushes to the janitor’s closet to cry. The school faculty arranges a meeting with Melinda and her parents to talk about why she has been skipping school. No one understands why Melinda wont tell them what’s wrong with her. The teachers wonder if Melinda’s parents are having marital issues and they get angry and curse at her. Melinda wonders how her parents can know so little about her. She is put into in-school suspension as punishment but when Melinda realizes that Andy Evans is in the suspension room too she vows to stop skipping class so that she won’t have to be around him.
David asks Melinda if she would like to go out with him to get pizza and she turns him down, giving a fake excuse. She feels that even though she likes David, no one can be trusted anymore. When Melinda goes home that night she has a flashback about what happened at the party.
Rachel’s brother drove them out to the party which was at a farm outside of town. Melinda drank beer until she felt like she was going to vomit. She walked out toward the woods for some fresh air. A senior boy comes over and flirts with her and kisses her. At first, Melinda is happy that she will have a boyfriend when she starts high school but soon the senior begins getting too aggressive and he asks her if she wants to have sex. Melinda doesn’t answer because she is too panicked to speak. The senior boy, Andy Evans, rapes her and then leaves. Melinda can’t remember how she got to a phone but she calls 911.
When the other party-goers realize that the cops are coming they get mad at Melinda and someone hits her. Melinda walks home before the police arrive. While Melinda recalls this, she bites through her lip so hard that it bleeds again. Her next report card reveals that she has all F’s except for Art.
That spring, Andy Evans begins flirting with Rachel and Greta-Ingrid. Soon, Rachel and Andy begin dating. Melinda isn’t sure if she should try to tell Rachel what Andy did to her. She decides to disguise her handwriting and write Rachel a note saying that Andy is dangerous. Melinda is asked to present her paper on the Suffragettes but she is too shy and refuses. She views it as a protest but David tells her that she is mistaking the Suffragettes true message but he still respects her for standing up for herself.
One day, she is alone in the art room when Andy comes in asking for Rachel. Melinda freezes and Andy starts yelling at her. When Melinda goes home she hides in her closet and stuffs clothes in her mouth to silence her screams. The next day, Melinda stays home and pretends to be sick. She watches talk shows all day and they help her realize that she was raped and it wasn’t her fault.
Melinda decides to write on the girl’s bathroom wall that Andy is dangerous and to stay away from him. She lists him under “Guys to stay away from”. Melinda finally confront Rachel and tells her that she was raped and that is why she called the police at the party. Rachel asks why she never told her but when Melinda tells her that it was Andy who raped her, Rachel gets angry and accuses her of lying. Later, Melinda finds out that dozens of other girls have written about their bad experiences with Andy Evans on the bathroom wall. Seeing this makes Melinda feel like she is flying. Melinda returns to the place that she was raped in order to come to terms with what happened to her.
After prom, Melinda learns that Rachel and Andy broke up. A few weeks before school ends, Melinda is moving her things out of the closet when Andy forces his way in and hits her. He is furious at her for spreading rumors about him. Andy starts to assault Melinda again but she screams and throws her turkey bone sculpture at a mirror and breaks it. Melinda holds a shard of the mirror to Andy’s throat and tells him that she said no. The lacrosse team overhears the commotion and breaks into the closet.
The lacrosse team tells everyone what happened and someone runs for help. The other kids in Melinda’s class feel bad for her and she is taken to the hospital. Rachel leaves a phone message for her telling her to call so they can talk. Melinda finishes her final art project of the tree and the book ends with her deciding to tell Mr. Freeman what happened to her.
Melinda Sordino – the main protagonist of the novel. Melinda is a fourteen year old girl who is raped at a party the summer before starting high school. Before her rape, Melinda was a good student and had many friends with whom she was in a group called the ‘Plain Janes’. However, the incident at the party lead to her losing her friends who did not understand why she called the police. Dealing with her trauma everyday leads her to begin failing her classes and eventually skipping school entirely.
The biggest facet of Melinda’s problem is in her not feeling able to confess what happened to her to anyone in her life. Throughout the novel, she nervously chews on her lips to the point that they become chapped and split. This is symbolic of Melinda’s inability to speak to the adults in her life. Melinda’s epiphany comes toward the end of the book, when watching daytime talk shows convinces her that she was indeed raped and that it was not her fault. She finally begins to slowly open up to her friends and then to her teacher, Mr. Freeman.
Heather – Melinda’s friend. Heather is a new student from Ohio who befriends Melinda on the first day of school. Heather does not know about Melinda calling the police at the summer party and therefore does not ostracize her like the other kids. Unfortunately, when Heather begins to get more popular she quickly stops being friends with Melinda. Though Heather ditches Melinda for her new friends, she does seem to still care somewhat for Melinda and warns her that she needs to get psychiatric help. Several times after Heather dumps Melinda, she returns to her for help in decorating for different school events in order to impress the Marthas.
Mr. Freeman – Melinda’s art teacher. Mr. Freeman is the only adult in the story who seems to listen to and understand Melinda. Mr. Freeman is a fun teacher who lets the kids listen to music and eat in his class. However, it is obvious throughout the novel that Mr. Freeman is struggling against the administration for his unconventional style of teaching. He often becomes frustrated and shows it through his actions. In the end, Mr. Freeman is the only adult that Melinda finally feels comfortable confessing her secret to.
Laurie Halse Anderson Biography
Laurie Halse Anderson was born Laurie Halse in Potsdam, New York on October 23rd, 1961. The daughter of a reverend, she was interested in writing from a young age, as early as the second grade. She also enjoyed reading science fiction and fantasy. Anderson attended high school in Manlius, New York and at the age of sixteen, she moved out of her parents house and lived in Denmark as a foreign exchange student. After the exchange program ended, she returned to her home in New York and began working at a clothing store.
Soon, she began attended college at Onondaga Community College, later attending Georgetown University and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics in 1984. In 1985, Anderson married Greg Anderson and they went on to have two children together before divorcing several years later.
Anderson began writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1990’s, beginning her writing career. It was during this time that she also began writing Young Adult novels. Her first children’s book, “Ndito Runs” was published in 1996 and that same year she published another children’s book “Turkey Pox”.
In 1999, Anderson published what is still her best known book, “Speak”. The novel was a critical success and went on to be published in 16 languages as well as becoming a National Book Award finalist. In 2002, she published a book that took place in the same high school as “Speak” called “Catalyst”. Anderson continued to make the New York Times Bestseller list throughout the early 2000’s with her book “Prom” (2005) and “Twisted” (2007). Her novels deal with tough issues that face teenagers like rape, eating disorders and other issues.
Anderson has also written several historical novels including “Fever 1973” (2000) and “Chains” (2008), both of which take place in historical settings, the first being in the Philadelphia during an epidemic and the second being about a Revolutionary War era slave. Anderson has won many awards for her work, including the ALA Margaret A. Edwards award and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. She currently lives in Mexico, New York with her husband Scott Larrabee.