Speak is easily one of my favorite books of all time. It is a powerful, beautifully-written book that is framed from the first-person perspective of the protagonist, Melinda; it is written in a diary-like fashion, giving the reader an inside view into Melinda's thoughts during a time in her life when she finds herself unable to express those thoughts to anyone else. It isn't a fun read, by any means; it is an exploration of trauma. It is a book that is more about education, awareness, and assistance in working through one's own traumas. This book is a depiction of the very real physical and mental impact that trauma has on a person, and it places that depiction squarely within the experience of a young girl beginning her freshman year of high school. Ever since I first read Speak, I have never stopped recommending it to anyone and everyone to read. I would especially recommend it to anyone who is working through their own trauma and may benefit from knowing that they aren't alone in how they feel and in what they are dealing with, and to anyone who is seeking to better understand a victim of trauma--particularly of the sort Melinda has experienced (rape, sexual assault).
Since it was first published in 1999, it has been adapted into a 2004 film of the same name; adapted into a graphic novel (written by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Emily Carroll; published 2018); and seen the release of a special 20th Anniversary Edition which features resources including an updated Q&A, resource list, poem, and essay by the author. Speak has won numerous awards over the decades since it was first released, and yet has also faced quite a lot of censorship.
Criticism and censorship of Speak has only increased over the years. It has been on the ALA's list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for each of the past two decades (#60 in 2000-2009, #25 in 2010-2019), and last year it made it all the way up to reach fourth place on the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020 list.
Why is this book being challenged?
According to the ALA, Speak was "Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint and it was claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity."
First off, let's be clear: if being thoroughly anti-rape is a political viewpoint, then there is something very wrong with the political system involved. I have very strong feelings with respect to how this plays out and its implications here in the USA (for example: I very much do think that we have politicians and political movements that are rape apologists, and that our justice system frequently fails and even punishes the victims of rape rather than their rapists), but I won't dive too deeply into that particular mire here. Instead, let me simply say that there is nothing political in Speak, and even if there were, we should not be censoring books or banning them from schools for representing a particular political viewpoint. We should be teaching children to understand and think critically about political viewpoints rather than working to indoctrinate them into a particular political viewpoint.
Moving on from the issue of any politics in Speak (although, again, there aren't any), we reach the claim that it is "biased against male students." I wish I could say that I was surprised that such complaints have been made about this book. However, how could anyone--especially on this side of the #MeToo movement--actually be surprised to hear that there are people who view speaking up for rape victims (and condemning their rapists) as being biased against men. There are many people--including politicians, judges, attorneys, Supreme Court Justices, etc.--who are more concerned about the fate, future and success of boys and men who rape and sexually assault or harass others than they are of the well-being of their victims. This claim against Speak is both another example of the "not all men" chorus, and of the rape culture that permeates our society. Speak is a book that is meant to bring comfort to and raise understanding for victims of traumatic assault, whether those victims are male, female, or non-binary. It is absolutely not "biased against male students"; it is, however, staunchly anti-rape--which we all should be.
As for trying to keep Speak from libraries and classrooms because of the 'mature topics' it addresses (rape, sexual assault) and the profanity it includes (characters within this book do, indeed, cuss--as teenagers are wont to do), I must present this question: Why do so many people try so hard to hide children and young adults from the truths of their--and their peers'--own lived experience? Sheltering them from reading about rape won't protect them from being raped.
Laurie Halse Anderson herself puts it extremely well in her FAQ regarding this book on her website:
YOUR BOOK SPEAK IS CONSTANTLY ON THE BANNED BOOKS LISTS AT SCHOOLS. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THOSE PARENTS THAT ARE PUSHING FOR SPEAK TO BE BANNED?
If you have not yet read Speak, please strongly consider doing so. At this point in time, what excuse do you really have not to? You could read the original novel--it is, after all, a slim YA book. You could listen to the audio book. You could read the graphic novel, if that's more your speed. You could even engage with Speak by watching the movie, if film is your preferred media type. I absolutely love Speak. I have loved everything I have read that Laurie Halse Anderson has written, but Speak holds a special place in my heart.
If you enjoyed Speak and want to read a similar book by the same author, which features a male protagonist, I recommend Twisted. You can find my review of that book here. Really, though, you cannot go wrong with anything by this author.
A Challenged Books Challenge
This is the fourth installment in the series of 10 book reviews I will be doing as part of my challenge to read and review all of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Read more about this challenge, including the other books involved, here. The first installment (my review of George) can be found here, the second installment (my review of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You) can be found here, and the third (my review of All American Boys) can be found here.
The next book I will be reviewing is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Look for that review here on my blog on June 25.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.