Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Speak Lives Up to Its Good Reputation

This morning my middle school language arts classes had a different sort of bell ringer activity. Usually, the bell ringer asks them to write a paragraph, answer state assessment prep questions, define vocabulary words, or solve a puzzle of some sort. Today I changed things up by beginning the class period with D.E.A.R. time -- an acronym that stands for Drop Everything And Read. In a world of increasingly difficult standards and stacks of official assessments, we rarely take time to do anything but hit those performance indicators. This month we've begun preparing for the 8th grade writing assessment (which comes February 1st), so "hitting it hard" has become an understatement. I thought my students needed a short break, and what better break than reading?

So for fifteen minutes or so at the beginning of class, we all sat perfectly silently and read whatever we wanted to read. I intended to join them -- to show them that, yes, it is possible to actually WANT to read, rather that HAVE to read for AR points or some other such requirement. Having left my current read (Sara Paretsky's amazing new V.I. Warshawski novel Body Work) at home, I turned to my classroom shelves. I ended up reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I started years ago and have never finished. But my eyes also lit upon Laurie Halse Anderson's YA novel Speak, and that reminded me that I never mentioned it here.

At the beginning of the school  year, my mom and I went on a mission to outfit my new classroom with a YA library. We pored over many shelves at multiple McKay's locations, and I have a respectable hundred books or so to show for our efforts. Speak was a novel I immediately knew I wanted.  However, it has also been the subject of some controversy due to content, so I felt I needed to read the book before throwing it out there for my kids to read.

Melinda is an outcast who knows exactly what that means -- after all, she used to be part of the "in" crowd. Over the summer, she attended a party and sealed her fate with the worst possible thing a high schooler could do -- she called the cops and busted the party. Now she walks the halls of her high school, not invisible like other outcasts, but hated. Her former friends make snide comments as she seeks a seat in the cafeteria; she is a leper in her classes during "pick-your-partner" activities. She tries to tell herself she doesn't care, but slowly depression takes over her life.

Melinda is befriended by someone who doesn't know any better -- a new girl who has no idea what Melinda did. Heather is determined to have the high school experience captured only in movies, and when her attempts to have Melinda join her don't work, even that friendship seems to wane. As Melinda's depression deepens, it becomes apparent that there are secrets she may have to reveal. Will she find her voice and speak up, or will she allow her depression to pull her under?

Speak was as real a YA novel as one could hope for; Anderson describes high school, with all its intricacies of social levels, perfectly. Melinda's first-person narrative is realistic, deeply sad, and beautiful. Her inner conflict, as well as her conflict with others, is on-point for adolescents caught in that time when self is just being formed and everything seems to be heart-stoppingly important. This is a novel not only for young adults, but also for adults who have any contact with teenagers. Anderson captures the adolescent spirit and reminds grown-ups exactly how devastating high school can be.

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