My first introduction to this book came as a bookstore employee, hunting it down for many clueless teenagers. Speak is a novel that winds up on many reading lists for 8th/9th/10th grade English classes. There are many good reasons for this. It is a very powerful book. Despite being short, less than 200 pages, the story it tells is one that needs to be heard. And not just by teenagers with English assignments. This book is appropriate for everyone who has ever felt left out or unheard.
Melinda is a freshman in high school. She starts the year with no friends, despite having lived in the same town her entire life. She is an outcast; ostracized by her peers for calling the cops at a party last summer. The school only knows Melinda as the narc; they don't know what really happened that night.
The only friend Melinda makes is the new girl, Heather. She is an outsider and doesn't know of Melinda's past, just that she needs friends and Melinda is the only person to give her the time of day. The year starts out like most school years do; new classes, new teachers, new social activities. Heather is desperate to be accepted by some social group that will give her popularity. Melinda's old best friend, Rachel, starts dating a senior named Andy. Things are changing and not for the better.
Melinda slowly withdraws into herself, losing track of assignments, cutting class and eventually stops speaking. She is failing all her classes, except Art, where she is pushed to express herself by a seemingly off-his-rocker teacher. Other teachers take notice of Melinda's absences and withdrawal socially, labeling her a troublemaker.
Her parents are absent; too busy working and dealing with the stresses in their own lives to notice their daughter's downward spiral. Melinda is obviously depressed, she rarely speaks out loud anymore and shuns human contact of any kind.
Heather eventually dumps her for a new social group, the Marthas. Melinda makes sort-of-friends with an artsy girl named Ivy. Things start looking up for Melinda when Ivy accidentally marks on Mel's shirt with markers in class one day. Melinda goes to the bathroom to wash it off and Ivy follows, to make sure she doesn't ditch class. Melinda is inspired to write her own graffiti on the bathroom stall after reading some. She writes "Guys to watch out for: Andy."
This is the beginning of her upward climb. A few days later she goes back to the bathroom stall and sees how many other girls have left their comments about Andy. Melinda is not alone.
What I got out of this book was just how accurately it portrayed teenage depression. By taking away her voice, the novel puts us inside Melinda's head. It also shows just how mean teenagers can be to one another, especially when they don't know both sides of a story or don't take the time to get to know their "victims." Melinda is bullied on a daily basis. And while she doesn't take the time or make the effort to explain her actions at the party, she never really feels like she can. Who is going to believe the weird cop-calling girl anyway? I can see where she is coming from. I have been there.
I understand why teachers would assign this book for a class assignment, especially at the grade levels mentioned earlier. That is the time most kids are in danger of being bullied, succumbing to peer pressure, depression, anxiety, etc. This is a time when the kids need to read books like this the most. I hope that these kids actually take the subject matter to heart. I know how hard it is to force a kid to read something when they don't want to, no matter how beneficial it is. But with all the school bullying the media has been spotlighting recently, books like this are needed even more.