Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

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*Contains Spoilers*

I was going to say it isn’t very often that I can remember when I purchased a book, but now I think about it I am pretty good at remembering when I bought quite a few of them. Maybe it would be fairer to say it isn’t very often that I remember exactly when and where I was when I purchased books in my childhood/teenage years. However one book that certainly breaks this is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. I have vivid memories of being on a day trip to the seaside town of Weymouth (this all sounds very Victorian) with my sister, Nanna and her friend. There was all the usual seaside activities and shouting ‘step’ every time there was a pavement so the oldies didn’t trip up – how patronising – and a trip to a bookshop. I think I must have seen this book in a shop back home and been on the hunt for it ever since. Well I either bought it for myself or Nanna did and although this was over ten years ago, I still kept hold of the book obviously convinced I would one day read it again. Yesterday was the day.

Speak is told from the first person perspective of Melinda, a girl about to start her first day of high school. Despite having grown up in the town, she has no friend and doesn’t belong to, or fit in with, any high school cliques. In fact, they all hate her. Why? Well Melinda committed the ultimate crime and called the police whilst at a high school party. What no one knows is that it wasn’t because of the drinking, but because of something much more sinister and an event that has left Melinda without a voice.

Speak is a powerful read. It explores the everyday struggles of being a teenager and the difficulties of juggling friendships, different classes and teachers who just do not understand. However it also tackles something much darker than this; the horror and aftermath of rape and in particular the taboo and preconceptions of this when you are a young teenage girl and you have convinced yourself you must be to blame. Melinda feels as though she has no one to turn to and therefore says nothing, turns inwards and shuts down. It is not until page 190 that she even mentions the word ‘rape’ choosing instead to avoid any mention of what happened in an attempt to erase it from her memory. Hints are made throughout the novel and it is clear that some kind of assault has taken place but the fact Melinda can’t mention it only reinforces how harrowing and life changing this was.

Speak is an interesting and engaging piece of fiction and I certainly feel it handles the subject of rape in a sensitive and appropriate way. It puts me in mind of some articles I have taught about how teenagers shouldn’t be reading books about upsetting or difficult issues, however I feel Speak is a perfect example of why they should be encouraged to read more challenging books that explore ‘taboo’ subjects. If it encourages just one person to find their voice, how can it be a bad thing?

Chains

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Chains follows the life of Isabel, a young, black slave girl in 1700s America. Tensions are running high between the Americans and the British, with the former wanting their independence, something Isabel also craves. Believing she is a free girl on the death of her mistress she is distraught to discover that she is nothing more than an object to be passed from one owner to the next. Arriving in New York with the Locktons, her new and cruel owners, Isabel is soon swept up in a world of rebellion, fighting and freedom.

I started reading Chains in preparation for teaching to one of my top sets. I did pick it up when I was on holiday, but swiftly put it down as I couldn’t focus on school work. I felt as though I was reading it for ages as the start of school was a tad manic, but I finally finished it during the week and have finally gotten round to writing this post. American history is not something I know a great deal about; occasionally I read American literature and I have studied it at numerous points throughout my education, but it is not something I eagerly sort out. This is possibly one of the first books I have read set during this time period and it was certainly an interesting read and so far I have enjoyed teaching it in class and I think the students are enjoying it as well.

Isabel is quite an endearing protagonist and her trials and struggles are often heart wrenching and always unfair. Anderson creates empathy for her from the very beginning and this is maintained throughout, so the reader is always engaged and intrigued by her story. Just when you feel Isabel is getting somewhere something terrible comes around to knock her back down again, and yet she never gives up her determination and hope. So much so that we are left on a cliffhanger at the end of Chains and the story is very much set up for the next in the story. It is always fun to teach a novel that is the first in a series, especially as then I can spend a few months looking to see who has moved on to the next book. Overall it was a good read, but I am glad to return to adult books for a while.