Why the YA Novel ‘Speak’ is One of the Most Important Books Ever

There’s a reason that Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 novel is still more popular than ever. It’s a milestone in young adult fiction.

Brian Rowe
May 7, 2019 · 14 min read
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Photo by DanaTentis at Pixabay

The Story

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The Themes

Rachel and every other person I’ve known for nine years continue to ignore me. I’m getting bumped a lot in the halls. A few times my books were accidentally ripped from my arms and pitched to the floor. I try not to dwell on it.

‘You don’t like anything. You are the most depressed person I’ve ever met, and excuse me for saying this, but you are no fun to be around and I think you need professional help.’

Mom says I take after Dad’s side of the family. They’re mostly cops and insurance salesmen who bet on football games and smoke disgusting cigars. Dad says I take after Mom’s side of the family. They’re farmers who grow rocks and poison ivy.

My family doesn’t talk much and we have nothing in common, but if my mother cooks a proper Thanksgiving dinner, it says we’ll be a family for one more year. Kodak logic. Only in film commercials does stuff like that work.

I hear Dad turn on the television. Clink, clink, clink — he drops ice cubes in a heavy-bottomed glass and pours in some booze.

I look Mom square in the eye, then rinse my plate and retreat to my room. Deprived of Victim, Mom and Dad holler at each other. I turn up my music to drown out the noise.

I’m getting the hang of this. While Ivy and Mr. Freeman watch, I reach in and pluck out the Barbie head. I set it on top of the bony carcass. There is no place for the palm tree — I toss that aside. I move the knife and fork so they look like legs. I place a piece of tape over Barbie’s mouth.

When I try to carve it, it looks like a dead tree, toothpicks, a child’s drawing. I can’t bring it to life. I’d love to give it up. Quit. But I can’t think of anything else to do, so I keep chipping away at it.

I work on Heather’s posters for two weeks. I try to draw them in the art room, but too many people watch me. It is quiet in my closet, and the markers smell good. I could stay here forever.

This year Rachelle is going to a party thrown by one of the exchange students’ host families. I heard her talk about it in algebra. I knew I wouldn’t get an invitation. I would be lucky to get an invitation to my own funeral with my reputation.

There is a beast in my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, staining me. My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them.

I almost tell them right then and there. Tears flood my eyes. […] I try to swallow the snowball in my throat. This isn’t going to be easy. I’m sure they suspect I was at the party.

I didn’t call the cops to break up the party, I write. I called — I put the pencil down. I pick it up again — them because some guy raped me.

IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding. Andy Evans raped me in August when I was drunk and too young to know what was happening. It wasn’t my fault. He hurt me.

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Why I Love This Book

It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.

I hide in the bathroom until I know Heather’s bus has left. The salt in my tears feels good until it stings my lips. I wash my face in the sink until there is nothing left of it, no eyes, no nose, no mouth. A slick nothing.

My English teacher has no face. She has uncombed stringy hair that droops on her shoulders. The hair is black from her part to her ears and then neon orange to the frizzy ends. I can’t decide if she had pissed off her hairdresser or is morphing into a monarch butterfly. I call her Hairwoman.

She complains all the time about her hair turning gray and her butt sagging and her skin wrinkling, but I’m supposed to be grateful for a face full of zits, hair in embarrassing places, and feet that grow an inch a night. Utter crap.

I open up a paper clip and scratch it across the inside of my left wrist. Pitiful. If a suicide attempt is a cry for help, then what is this? A whimper, a peep?

The sun doesn’t shine much in Syracuse, so the art room is designed to get every bit of light it can. It is dusty in a clear-dirt kind of way. The floor is layered with dry splotches of paint, the walls plastered with sketches of tormented teenagers and fat puppies, the shelves crowded with clay pots.

The air swirls with sawdust. Sap oozes from the open sores on the trunk. He is killing the tree. He’ll only leave a stump.

Mr. Freeman throws his hands in the air. ‘Enough! Please turn your attention to the bookshelves.’ We dutifully turn and stare. Books. This is art class.

Our teachers need a snow day. They look unusually pale. The men aren’t shaving carefully and the women never remove their boots. They suffer some sort of teacherflu. Their noses drip, their throats gum up, their eyes are rimmed with red.

Andy Beast asked Rachel to go with him [to the prom]. I can’t believe her mother is letting her go, but maybe she agreed because they’re going to double with Rachel’s brother and his date.

I reach in and wrap my fingers around a triangle of glass. I hold it to Andy Evan’s neck. He freezes. I push just hard enough to raise one drop of blood. He raises his arms over his head. My hand quivers. I want to insert the glass all the way through his throat, I want to hear him scream.

Read. Watch. Write. Repeat.

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