I have read a lot of books that have affected me, especially in the young adult genre. Most of them I read at the “appropriate” age. The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and The Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson, challenged my view of the world in different but equally startling ways in sixth and seventh grade. I probably read Rimwalkers, by Vicki Grove, a dozen times between 8th and 10th grade, and the well worn, personally inscribed copy still holds a special place on my book shelf, even now.
You’re supposed to be affected by the books that you read in junior and senior high, that’s why they choose them. It isn’t about the style of writing, that comes later. When you find yourself huddled together in groups of four and five, desks shoved up against one another as you take turns reading chapters aloud it’s about what you can learn, how it can shape you, and, sometimes, what you can discover about yourself.
It’s a little more startling when you pick up a book that has, unbelievably, flown under your youth fiction devouring radar for more than 15 years. A book that has won multiple awards… shaped hundreds lives… probably saved a few…
Yesterday, by chance, or fate, or just dumb luck, I discovered Speak. Written by Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak is the story of Melinda Sordino, a freshman in high school with a secret so big it sticks in her throat. Afraid that no one will listen anyway, and crushed by the judgement of people who thought were her friends, Melinda stumbles through each day, fighting the weight of depression and loneliness. Melinda is Outcast. Melinda is broken…
Speak was the most difficult book I’ve ever had to read. Fifty pages in, I was searching for the contact information for my Children’s Lit professor, wondering if he’d check his email during the holiday break and praying he’d let me beg out of every having to read a book that was absolutely destroying me. One hundred pages in, I was afraid I’d break. One hundred and fifty pages in I almost gave up.
Speak is the story of a girl with a secret so big it sticks in her throat and makes her tongue swell. It is the story of acceptance and rejection, fitting in, trust, understanding… growing up. Even Melinda’s secret struck a chord of recognition. A year later, a change of scenery, the shift of cast members…
Speak was my story.
Except it wasn’t.
Every year, around 293,000 people are sexually assaulted in America. That is one victim every 107 seconds.
44% of those victims are under the age of 18.
68% of attacks are never reported to police.
Speak is their story, too.
I’ll probably never read Speak again. A part of me, the part of me that wants everything to go away, wants to burn the book and never look back. I want to watch it char, and crumble, and turn to dust, and I want it to take the memories, and the pain, and the loneliness of my teenage years with it. The other part of me, though, the part of that keeps moving forward, that realizes that the past can’t be forgotten and that healing takes time, will put Speak on a shelf. Like Melinda’s turkey carcass sculpture, Speak will sit on that shelf as long as I need it to, a talisman giving me the strength to ward off the ghosts of my past.
Speak is the story of Melinda, a girl who found the strength to say “Let me tell you about it.”
Know the facts: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
Speak up: National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE
Featured Image: Tattoo design by Knotted Thread (2015)