This coming-of-age drama by Laurie Halse Anderson is published by the Penguin Group. The book is written for ages 12 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Melinda Sordino begins the first day of high school as an outcast because of something she did over the summer. (What she did isn't revealed until later in the story.) She makes an instant enemy of her social studies teacher when she fails to find a seat in the auditorium during freshman assembly. But at orientation, Melinda forges a tentative friendship with Heather, a transfer student from Ohio. Heather is desperate to fit in and is unaware of Melinda's outcast status.
Only Mr. Freeman, the art teacher, is able to somewhat connect with Melinda. He challenges the students in his class to find their souls. Each student is asked to pull a slip of paper from a hollow globe. The art they create in his class must focus on that one word. Melinda draws the word trees. When she tries to put it back, Mr. Freeman scolds her, saying she must learn to embrace her destiny.
Melinda's former best friend, Rachel, or Rachelle, as she prefers to be called now that she's hanging out with the exchange students, ignores Melinda when she isn't treating her poorly. At a pep rally, students pick on Melinda because she called the cops to break up a keg party over the summer. The kids in the stands pull her hair and ridicule Melinda while she tries not to think about the real reason she called the police.
Melinda names one boy IT in the hallway, at least in her mind. He is part of the nightmare that she can't wake up from. IT is Andy Evans, the school's "bad boy" — gorgeous, but with a dangerous reputation of sleeping around. He plays with Melinda's hair while he flirts with the other girls at her lunch table. She excuses herself to the bathroom and vomits her lunch.
Melinda cleans out an old janitor's closet and uses it as a refuge. She finds it more and more difficult to talk to her parents or teachers. Sometimes she longs to scream what happened to her, but her throat closes up. When Heather tells Melinda she no longer wants to be friends with her, explaining that Melinda is just too depressing, Melinda flees to her closet where she bites her wrist and cries. The next day she skips school and finds solace hiding in a hospital.
The principal calls a meeting between Melinda, her parents and the guidance counselor to discuss Melinda's failing grades. She remains silent as the adults around her try to discover what has caused the change in her behavior. Instead of coaxing words from her, they argue about who's to blame for the transition. Melinda is given in-school detention. Andy Evans is there. He blows in her ear. She wishes she could kill him.
When David Petrakis, her lab partner, asks Melinda to come back to his house for a pizza party after a basketball game, her façade begins to crack. She makes up an excuse why she can't go, even though part of her wants to.
That night she relives the nightmare of the last party of the summer. Melinda drank too much and ended up wandering alone outside in the moonlight. It was then that Andy Evans raped her, leaving her bruised, scared and alone. Melinda vaguely remembers seeing a phone and calling 911 for help but being unable to speak when the dispatcher answered.
Later, Heather tries to manipulate Melinda into helping her put up the decorations for prom, but Melinda sticks up for herself and refuses. After her small victory, she decides to talk with Rachel. Her friend is dating Andy Evans and is planning to go to prom with him. Melinda confesses that Andy raped her. Rachel doesn't believe her.
The Monday after prom, Melinda hears rumors that Rachel dumped Andy because he wouldn't keep his hands off of her during the dance. When he tries to make up with Rachel at school, she snubs him. Empowered by Andy's fall from popularity, Melinda decides to dismantle her secret hiding place. Andy follows her into the closet and locks the door. He is furious at her. Her stories caused Rachel to dump him. He assaults Melinda.
This time, however, Melinda is not silent. She screams and fights back to free herself from Andy's hands. Eventually she uses a piece of a broken mirror as a knife and holds it to his throat. He is speechless, and Melinda is satisfied. She gets the closet door unlocked, and other students run for help.
Melinda turns in her last tree picture on the final day of school. It has been beaten and bruised, but there are new branches on it seeking sunlight. The entire school now knows what happened in the janitor's closet, and Melinda has become a kind of celebrity. When Mr. Freeman offers her a box of tissues and comments that she's been through a lot, Melinda sits down and starts to tell her story. She is finally ready to speak.
God is used as a comparison, a simile, to represent something that is supposed to always be present.
Melinda has little respect for any of the adults at her school — dubbing them with nicknames such as Mr. Neck, Hairwoman and Principal principal. She feels Mr. Neck is on a personal vendetta to label her as trouble; Hairwoman has no face and speaks to objects in the room rather than her students; and a student without a hall pass easily outwits Principal principal.
Melinda's parents are self-absorbed. They don't question her personality change until confronted with her failing grades. Her mother and father argue with each other and seem content to ignore Melinda. They impose restrictions on her after their meeting with the principal, but they never dig deeper into what has caused Melinda's drastic decline.
In Melinda's social studies class, Mr. Neck rants about his son not getting a job because of reverse discrimination. He opens a debate about whether America should have closed its borders to immigration in 1900. When pro-immigration students begin to take the upper hand in the debate, Mr. Neck abruptly ends the argument. David Petrakis stands up for the students' right to have their opinions heard, whether the teacher agrees with them or not. David walks out on the class and hires a lawyer to help protect his First Amendment rights in Mr. Neck's class. He tapes Mr. Neck's lectures and later brings in a video camera to stop Mr. Neck from sneering at him during class.
Mr. Freeman is both revered and considered weird for his "free spirit" attitude toward art and life. His classroom is considered a haven because he is nonjudgmental and challenges the educational hierarchy.
Other belief systems
Melinda comments that her parents didn't give her any religious values, saying they only worship credit cards. Melinda thinks maybe if she'd gone to Sunday school she would understand how the cheerleaders can sleep with the football team on Saturday night and come back as virgins on Monday.
In Rachel's effort to fit in with the foreign exchange students, Rachel experiments with Islam.
Profanity is scattered throughout the book, including a--hole and bulls---. Several girls are called b--ch. The word crap is used, and God's name is used in vain with thank, oh my or for the love of.
A girl jams her knee into Melinda's back at a pep rally. Another yanks her hair. While dissecting a frog, Melinda passes out and cuts her head on the table. In her emotional turmoil, Melinda cuts her wrist with a paper clip, chews her lips until they are scabby and bleeding, bites her wrist and hits her head repeatedly against a wall.
Melinda's memory of the actual rape, while emotionally horrifying, is not told in graphic detail. Andy's attack in the janitor's closet is much more violent in nature. Melinda is slammed against the wall, her hands pinned above her head. Andy hits her in the face. Later he holds one hand over her mouth and tries to choke her with the other. After Melinda breaks a mirror, she holds a shard of glass to Andy's throat and draws a single drop of blood.
At the beginning of the book, the school board doesn't believe "the Trojan" as a mascot sends a strong enough abstinence message.
Melinda is raped before the book starts. The rape is not told in graphic detail. It is described with sensory details — what the ground smelled like, how hard it was to breathe, how she tried to scream but remained silent. Andy tries to assault her a second time in the janitor's closet.
A model with gold eyeliner is considered sexy. Melinda watches Heather at a modeling job, and the photographer keeps urging her to be sexier and to think about boys while she models a swimsuit. Melinda frets about the changes in her body when she looks at herself in a mirror.
Students giggle during a biology class on reproduction. Several students kiss on Valentine's Day. The cheerleaders create a suggestive cheer and dance when the school mascot is changed to a hornet. Prom is referred to as the climax of the students' mating season.
Melinda overhears some girls saying that Andy will sleep with anything. Her friend Rachel is said to pant after him like a dog. When Melinda recalls the party, she tells about Andy's first kiss, which was gentle and exciting. His second kiss was brutal, and Melinda became afraid, unable to speak while Andy raped her.
Melinda writes a note on a bathroom wall warning girls to stay away from Andy. Other girls leave their own negative comments, some of them explicit about Andy's actions.
2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award for Catalyst, Fever 1793 and Speak
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Why is Melinda treated as an outcast at school?
Why is she treated as a celebrity by the end of the book?
How does student perception change?
- How does our society view celebrities?
Why shouldn't we treat our friends as outcasts or celebrities?
How can we learn to look inside of people instead of judging them for their appearance or actions?
- How old was Melinda?
Should she have been drinking?
What were some of the poor choices she made leading up to the rape?
Is it her fault that she was raped?
Why do some victims feel that it is their fault, when it isn't?
- Why do you think Melinda kept her emotions bottled inside?
Why doesn't she tell anyone what has happened?
Is there someone in your life that you can tell everything to?
Tell me about this person.
- How does Heather use her friendship with Melinda to her own advantage?
How do her actions show that she isn't a true friend?
How should Melinda have asked a friend for help?
How do your friends ask you for help?
How do you ask your friends for help?
- Melinda's former friends don't ask her why she called the police at the party.
Why is it important to talk with your friends, even if you think they are to blame for something?
- What would you do if you noticed a friend had changed — an A student was flunking or a joyful-hearted person was now depressed?
Who should you tell about this person? How should you talk to this person?
A television movie was made from this book. Speak was originally produced in 2004 by Showtime Entertainment. It was released on DVD in 2005.
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