You can read Part 1 here.
The first time I saw it, I wasn’t interested. The cover caught my attention, so I pulled it off the shelf and flipped it over. Something about the description put me off, though I don’t recall what it was. I remember thinking, “This could go either way. It’ll probably be pretentious.” I placed it back on the shelf and moved on.
I came back. You know how some books just call out to you? How there’s something between the marketing copy and the cover and praising quotes that screams out that this is a book just for you? (Or is that just me?) Speak wanted me to read it. It took me a while to get the message, but before long I was back at the shelf, wondering why I’d put it back the first time. I hadn’t a clue. I took it to the register.
Speak is Laurie Halse Anderson’s first, and best, novel. It’s not a book I like to describe in any detail, because the plot is so simple that it’s hard not to give the whole thing away in a blurb. Melinda is starting high school, and something very bad happened over the summer. She’s been abandoned by her friends, alienated from her family, and can’t find the words to speak about any of it. It’s about how we blame ourselves for terrible things that happened to us, and how shame and fear and loneliness force us into silence.
It’s more than just a great story to me. Speak shifted something in my head and in my heart. There was something so raw and personal in the narrative, something utterly immediate about it all. In most of the young adult fiction I’d read, there were good characters, but they rarely felt like real teenagers. I love Vicky from A Ring of Endless Light, but she’s a step detached from the way it felt to be that age. Most of the really good young adult fiction gives its characters the right problems. They feel the right things. They just don’t feel them the way, or with the intensity, that I want. Speak was the real deal. Speak was being in high school again.
One of the reasons I’d jumped from kids’ books to Stephen King was It. Unlike the books written for my age group, It didn’t screw around. The kids’ heads were a bigger mess even than their lives. Speak felt the same way. Melinda was real. Not just the pain and loneliness, but her perspective, her wit, her sense of humor. No one is a simple reflection of the big bad thing happening at that moment in their lives. The rest is still in there, laughing and snarking and screaming at everything happening around us.
Speak isn’t the only book to strike so personal a tone, or to do it so successfully. But it was the one I read at the right moment, when I was ready to understand it. The difference between books we love and books that change us can be found there, in the timing of finding them. For me, Speak was the first time I really understood what being personal meant in a story. It taught me the line between a novel telling a story and being that story.
When things fell into place for my first novel, it was no surprise that it was the story of a teenager I wanted to tell. I didn’t, and don’t, consider myself a young adult writer. If you backed me into a corner, I’d say I was a fantasy author first and foremost. But after Speak, I knew I had to find that tone, to find my way that far inside of a story. Maybe it was because a young adult novel had opened my eyes, or maybe the most raw and turbulent emotions in memory were of my senior year of high school, but a young adult novel was the only possible choice.
It’s odd to think about how those little choices push us into place. Without the Coming of Age Literature class, there’s no way I end up in the young adult section of Barnes and Noble to see Speak. Without Speak, I haven’t a clue what I’d have written, or even if it would have been any good. A few steps taken out of laziness and intuition, and I find myself, years later, with a young adult novel behind me and a second down the road.
Thank God I didn’t take a class in mid-20th century American depresso-lit, right?