17 January 2010

Speak (times two)

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak was on the schedule for January as the first book of the new year for our little bookseller bookclub.  I've had a copy lurking about on my bookshelves for a while and I'm so very glad it was Jackie's pick for the group.  Speak is a book that always comes up in conversation with teens and teachers so I was happy to have a good reason to catch up on good YA literature.

Miranda Scordino narrates in the first person, taking the reader through her first year of high school, a year that was supposed to be fun but is now a mine-field of ostracism and indifference.  She is very frank in her feelings, her thoughts play out in prose, scripted dialogue, and lists (the "First Ten Lies They Tell You in High School" are, sadly, very true).  She gives her classmates and teachers nicknames (Hairwoman is an apt name) and she rebels against her parents efforts to "normalize" her.  The one thing from Speak that stays with me is Miranda's voice - she has an authentic voice, she sounds like a young teen, one who has been traumatized but remains very observant of her school and peers.  Even though Miranda can't "speak" about what happened she learns to begin expressing herself through art; the construction of the turkey-bone sculpture is a poignant scene.

Speak is a book that shows serious subjects - date rape and depression - presented in a format accessible to a younger audience.  It isn't graphic either in imagery or in language, you can hear and see far worse at any movie rated PG-13.  When Miranda finally flashes back to the assault her memories are disjointed, all the images are jumbled together so we are left to fill in the gaps and imagine the worst.  What disturbs me the most about Speak is that no one really wants to get behind the changes in her behavior; her parents are absorbed in their work, outside of the art teacher the rest of the teaching staff aren't concerned about her beyond her grade, her friends don't even bother to ask why she called 911 and abandon her the same way the rest of the school does.  Miranda displays many of the symptoms of PTSD and yet no one seems to care that she has gone from relatively normal to withdrawn, depressed, and nearly mute in the space of a few weeks.  It does seem to be a common theme; one edition of Speak contains a poem Laurie Halse Anderson wrote based on letters she received from teen readers, some of them confessions of assaults that no one ever knew about.  Miranda helped them "speak" and it shows the power in the novel.

I also, for the life of me, really can't quite figure out why Speak winds up being challenged/censored by school districts.  It is an honest book, but not graphically so; compared with The Lovely Bones, which opens with a graphic and harrowing scene of the rape and murder of a similarly-aged heroine, Speak does not fill the reader with terror.  Anderson comments on challenges often on her blog so I have developed a little insight - most challenges to Speak revolve around the assault, because it's the S-word (omg, sex!) - but it still boggles the mind.  The focus of the book isn't an overly graphic play-by-play assault sequence but Miranda's journey back from the trauma of the assault.  Clearly, people are missing the point and they would rather have ignorant kids instead of intelligent ones who stand up for themselves.

Our little book group tends to pick books that have been adapted for the silver screen so we can have a chat-and-movie night (failing any adaptations of a chosen book we just pick a movie we want to watch).  Speak was adapted into a 2004 movie starring Kristen Stewart and an oddly-cast-but-works-very-well Steve Zahn as the art teacher.  Kristen Stewart was very good as Melinda; I'm impressed.  I ragged on her performance as Bella Swan because it was some pretty flat acting but this movie shows that she does have talent.  She also has far more emotional material to work with when playing Melinda as opposed to playing Bella.  The adaptation from Speak the novel to Speak the movie is one of the best I've seen in years.  The screenwriter manages to keep Miranda's inner monologue and "voice" going throughout the movie which, being the focus of the book, goes a long way toward a faithful adaptation.  Anderson makes a cameo appearance as one of the cafeteria servers.

Current book-in-progress: What are Intellectuals Good For?, A Jury of Her Peers, The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Lightning Thief, and A Tree Growns in Brooklyn
Current knitted item: baby sweater
Current movie obsession: The History of Britain
Current iTunes loop: Glee!

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