Speaking Without The Words

Laurie Halse Anderson. Speak. New York: Penguin Group, 1999.

"I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don't have anyone to sit with.
I am outcast," (4).

For Melinda Sordino, going back to school this year will be harder than ever. Without supportive parents, and after losing her friends and reputation-she has to face this year alone. On her first day back to Merryweather High, Melinda is faced with an unforgiving and cruel crowd. The only words spoken to her, those from her ex-best friend are, “I hate you.” The only contact Melinda has that day happens to be with mash potatoes in an unpleasant surprise, and the entire cafeteria watching. In her ongoing battle with herself and her peers, Melinda goes from a self-respecting, friend-having, plane-Jane belonging, good-grade obtaining student, to an all around hated freshman-who’s worst enemy is sometimes herself.

"Mr Freeman thinks I need to find my feelings. How can I not find them? They are chewing me alive like an infestation of thoughts, shame, mistakes. I squeeze my eyes shut," (125).

Among a school of hating teenagers, the only place Melinda finds relief is in a janitors closet which she slowly turns into her own little safe haven. The only person she expresses anything to is her art teacher, Mr. Freeman. He encourages Melinda to express her feelings through her art project. She puts all her energy into her project...a tree. Unfortunately, the events surrounding Melinda's life have left her confused about friends, family, image, and her purpose, Melinda has nobody to turn to for help.

"IT is my nightmare and I can't wake up. IT sees me and winks. Good thing my lips are stitched together or I'd throw up," (46).

One senior boy and one phone call change Melinda's life as a ninth grader. While dealing with her own emotional damage Melinda is faced with a choice. She must use her voice to save an ex-friend. She must speak the truth. SPEAK tells the tale of one brave girl, who struggles to SPEAK about her abuse, or SPEAK about anything for that matter. It isn’t until Melinda experiences hatred and abandonment that she begins to SPEAK…and just in time for the wombats, or whoever they are, to listen!

"The tears dissolve the last block of ice in my throat. I feel the frozen stillness melt down through the inside of me, dripping shards of ice that vanish in a puddle of sunlight on the stained floor. Words float up," (198).

Speak is a YA novel that will connect with students on a number of different levels. Melinda's strong voice throughout the novel helps the reader to feel her pain in a very real way. Teacher's will have a challenge in dealing with some of the strong topics addressed in the novel. However, Speak will undoubtedly spark many interesting discussions in the classroom. These discussions will range from topics of rape, bullying, friendship and simply dealing with life as an adolescent. Teachers will also be able to teach symbolism as Anderson utilizes it often in the novel. Much of the symbolism deals with issues of identity and most of it revolves around Melinda's drawing of the tree. Students will enjoy reading Speak and will have the opportunity to confront delicate issues. It will also be beneficial for students to experience this new novel written in the voice of an adolescent. Ultimately, students will be left with a message of hope. High school is a difficult time for young adults and Speak can offer encouragement to students.

Final Grades for Speak:

English: A

Popularity: A

Plot: A

Overall: A+
Art: A

Inspiring: A

Characters: A

Attitude: A

Engaging: A

Relateability: A

About Laurie Halse Anderson


Laurie Halse Anderson was born in Potsdam, New York, and raised in Syracuse, New York. She now resides just outside of Philadelphia with her husband and their two teenage daughters. Laurie comments on the pronunciation of her name on her website, saying that it rhymes with “waltz,” and that her second biggest hope in life, right after world peace, is having people pronounce her name correctly.

When Laurie was a little girl, she spent countless hours typing stories, letters, columns, etc. on her father’s typewriter, and enjoyed watching him write poetry in his office, as well as reading her stories on the floor. She loves to read and her favorite book is the dictionary, which is a good thing because of her bad spelling abilities. Second grade is when Laurie recalls really learning to love writing. She credits this teacher and her lesson on Haiku for her love of writing. In school, she was not good in math, but excelled in reading and writing.

Growing up, Laurie wanted to become a doctor, and her website states that, “While her biology teacher may have found this to be plausible, her chemistry teacher probably would have laughed – and so would you if you could have seen her grades in that class.” Despite grades and desires, her love for foreign cultures and languages never subsided. She writes that Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, was one of her favorite books in school, and she credits the book with her decision to live and study in Denmark on a pig farm, going her senior year as an American Field Service exchange student.

Upon returning home, Laurie worked in a clothing store and quickly made the decision that college was more for her. She attended Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York, and worked on a dairy farm milking cows. She credits this experience for her decision to never study veterinary medicine. From there, Laurie went on to Georgetown University where she perused a bachelor’s degree in Languages and Linguistics - which she claims is “useless when it came to getting a real job.” She also says that her love and passion for college basketball did not seem to help employers in their decision to hire her either.

From there, life seemed to come around full circle for Laurie. She married who she calls a “computer nerd,” Greg Anderson, and the two have two daughters. While raising her daughters, Laurie considered writing “little more than a hobby.” When she realized people would pay her to write, she began freelance writing, and with that wrote several books, which she claims are the reason for a large pile of rejection letters.

In 1996, her first book, Ndito was published, and from there, the rest is history!

SPEAK is Laurie’s first novel, and was nominated for the 1999 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. SPEAK was also a Printz Honor book, a Top 10 First Novels of 1999 book, and many awards more. Her website says, “And no, it’s not about her and her teenage daughters (thank god).” In a very humble and witty About Me section, on her website, Laurie’s true fun and down-to-earth personality comes alive. Her Live Journal also shows her appreciation for anything and everything in her life, including pictures and very current postings.
“I live a charmed life. There is no doubt.” (Anderson)

Laurie Halse Anderson. 1 Feb. 2008. Theo Black and Laurie Halse Anderson. 1 Feb.
2008 <http://www.writerlady.com/>.

Other Books by Laurie Halse Anderson


Resources for Teachers

http://www.sheboyganfalls.k12.wi.us/cyberenglish9/Speak/speak.htm A Unit Plan coordinated for the novel
http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-speak/ A page with links to summary, character analysis and memorable quotes

Possible Topics to Discuss with students:

  • Self Confidence
  • Rape
  • Bullying
  • Depression
  • Friendship/Cliques

Possible Writing Prompts for students:

  • Write an extra journal entry after the end of the novel...
  • Is Mr. Freeman a good teacher? Why or why not...
  • Write a letter to Heather (in Melinda's voice) after Heather dumps her...
  • What do you think of Melinda's parents and why?...


Preview for the 2004 Speak Film

Helpful Links