This month marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Laurie Halse Anderson’s phenomenal, groundbreaking YA book Speak.
Speak was the first YA book I ever read while I myself was a young adult. The book hit shelves when I was 14, and I vividly remember heading deep into the corner of my local library and finding it on the shelf. I flipped through, immediately captivated by Melinda’s voice on the page. Her story hooked me and stayed with me throughout my teen years and my twenties, and I revisited the book again a few years ago. It not only still resonated, but I brought new things and gleaned fresh insights into the book, too. Melinda? She’s really quite funny. Despite the tragedy she’s experienced as the victim of a sexual assault, her humor further pulls at the reader’s heart and reminds them that even those who’ve suffered something unimaginable are still three-dimensional, complex individuals.
The publication of Speak’s graphic novel last year added even more to the story. Anderson’s story, updated to include some of the new realities of social media in the lives of high schoolers, pairs spectacularly with the art of Emily Carroll. It’s as haunting—and as moving—as the original book and welcomes both fans of the story and new readers into its world.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Speak, seven authors from all parts of the YA world have shared how the book has impacted them in both their personal lives and their writing lives (if those things are even extricable).
If you’ve been moved or impacted by Speak, please share your stories and memories in the comments. Without question, Speak will endure and become part of the YA canon.
Jennifer Mathieu, author of Moxie
It’s been my true privilege to have experienced Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK as a reader, a writer of young adult novels, and a high school English teacher. Many years ago when I was an aspiring novelist, Laurie’s SPEAK reassured me that teenagers crave honesty, complexity, nuance, and rough edges in their stories—they don’t need morality tales nor will they read them. Melinda’s journey as a survivor of sexual assault, crafted by Laurie with such authenticity and voice, served as a touchstone for me as I attempted to create my own stories about realistic teens in the world. What an honor to get to sit on a panel with Laurie at the Brooklyn Book Festival years later and have the opportunity to let her know how much her writing has meant to me. As a teacher, I have also seen how SPEAK has empowered and validated my own students; when I taught the novel last year to my tenth graders in Houston, I had three separate students share with me how Melinda’s story of survival and healing had helped them cope with their own assaults. Were it not for Laurie’s novel, I would not have been able to put one of those students in touch with our wonderful school social worker—until reading SPEAK she had not talked to anyone about what had happened to her. My love for Laurie, for Melinda, and for this new classic of young adult literature knows no bounds. May this much-needed story live on for 20, 40, 60 more years—and beyond.
Carey Anne Farrell, author of Forward March
I was in my twenties when SPEAK came out—technically too old for YA, but that never stopped me. Melinda’s sardonic but vulnerable voice captured my own inner teenage voice, in a way no other YA book I’d read had been able to—and her story was raw, powerful, and real. It made me want to write YA again, and in doing so, it helped me find my writer’s voice.
Amy Reed, author of The Boy and Girl Who Broke The World
SPEAK is literally the book that made me realize I wanted to write YA. I picked it up ten years ago after an agent kindly informed me, to my incredible surprise, that my manuscript was YA (this manuscript later became my debut BEAUTIFUL). After a quick Google search, I kept seeing SPEAK come up again and again so I decided to check it out. Reading it was kind of a religious experience for me, both creatively and personally. Finally, someone had written the book I had needed to read as a teen, that dealt with issues I felt I wasn’t allowed to talk about but desperately need to. And as an author who had always found myself drawn to writing stories about teens, I finally found a literary community that felt like exactly where I belonged. With SPEAK, I learned that young people’s literature could address difficult and important issues, that it could be literary and profound and beautiful.
Tanita S. Davis, Mare’s War
1999: I’d just published my first (long out of print) book with a protagonist who, looking back, was Mary Sue perfect, and therefore, nothing bad happened to her. I thought YA lit was supposed to be like what I’d read growing up—cautionary tales and polite fictions which promised girls that if they behaved, All Would Be Well. When I read SPEAK it rattled my preconceptions…because it was True, a kind of true that cut to the bone. I was, frankly, a little scared that YA lit could BE like that—maybe was SUPPOSED to be like that. SPEAK challenges me as a writer to be that honest, to speak my truth, and to stand by it unflinchingly.
Saundra Mitchell, editor/author of All Out
SPEAK was the first novel about rape that made me feel—as a survivor—seen, represented—heard. I wish I had had it when I was 16. I’m sorry that it’s still so desperately needed, but so glad that it’s here 20 years later for those who do. It’s hard to do what Laurie Halse Anderson has done, which is write a timeless novel that also feels modern and true. It’s a masterpiece and a cry in the dark. It’s extraordinary.
Heather Demetrios, author/editor of Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love
SPEAK is one of those books that I wish I’d had when I was a teen. A book that shines a light on the darkness so many of us face in our adolescence. It doesn’t shy away from the deep, lonely, desperately hard places many of us find ourselves in at that age, whether it’s because of sexual assault or some other monstrosity. So often teens are told to shut up. To “keep it down.” I grew up being told I was overly dramatic, that my pain was exaggerated. My cries for help were, by and large, ignored. I was hurting and I grew up in a culture that told me to hide that hurt, that it was my fault—my abusive boyfriend, trouble at home, my depression. My family literally nicknamed me Sarah Bernhardt, after the famous actress, because they thought I cried too much, too hard. This book calls bullshit on that. It says to shout your pain, holler it out, tell the world the truth. I am so glad it’s in the hands of teens who will read it and know that they have every right to SPEAK. And I hope they know there are so many of us out there that want to hear what they have to say. And that we’ll believe them.
Dhonielle Clayton, author of The Belles
As a writer, SPEAK and Laurie Halse Anderson showed me how honest I could be about trauma and pain for teens. They need tethers that frame the horrific things that happen to them in adolescence so that they can begin to heal and move forward. I didn’t think you could expose a piece of your soul in the way that Anderson did. She gave me a gift—the gift of honesty—and a challenge to always tell the truth in the things I write. That if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be giving teen readers the anchor they need to survive, and I wouldn’t be living up to the bar Anderson set.
Nita Tyndall, YA writer & moderator of the popular LGBTQIA+ YA website YA Pride.
SPEAK saved my life. SPEAK got me writing. SPEAK is the book I point at when people ask about the power of YA literature. I read it when I was in eighth grade, and I can still remember that feeling of being impacted by Laurie’s prose, breathlessly reading each line, and finishing the book thinking “I want to write books like that.” It’s the first book that showed me that I could be a writer.
Want more? Dig into this interview with Laurie Halse Anderson about the 15th anniversary of Speak and the life of the book, a conversation between Laurie Halse Anderson and Courtney Summers about the power and impact of girls’ stories, and what books to read after you’ve fallen in love with Speak.
Of course, add Laurie’s upcoming memoir SHOUT, to your March TBR. It’s a powerhouse of a book.