Examples of Excellence is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com that delves into the work of artists who demonstrate excellence in their craft.
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak was named to the ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults in 2000. It was also banned in schools and libraries across America, eventually becoming the 60th most banned and challenged book of that decade .
Speak is the story of Melinda, a high school freshman struggling with the fallout of calling the police during a summer party. She becomes a pariah at school, loses her best friend, and retreats into herself as she tries to figure out how to survive in this new environment.
This book is a particularly strong example of using a first-person point of view to create intimacy and authenticity, and of using a character’s attention to unpack their internal life. This post will focus on both, showing how Anderson uses POV to control the narrator and the reader’s focus as she reveals a layered and sensitive story.
Melinda first introduces her world on her way to school:
The school bus wheezes to my corner. The door opens and I step up. I am the first pickup of the day. The driver pulls away from the curb while I stand in the aisle. Where to sit? I’ve never been a backseat wastecase. If I sit in the middle, a stranger could sit next to me. If I sit in the front, it will make me look like a little kid, but I figure it’s the best chance I have to make eye contact with one of my friends, if any of them have decided to talk to me yet.
– p. 3
In this moment, we scan the bus’s seats and run through the options alongside Melinda. We get an introduction to her frank voice and her more introspective decision-making process. We also get a first hint of the novel’s conflict, dumped in our laps when we least expect it: the confession is off-handed but honest, and we begin to form a picture of Melinda’s personality and world.
Shortly after, we meet Rachel Bruin, one of the most important people in Melinda’s life:
The kids behind me laugh so loud I know they’re laughing about me. I can’t help myself. I turn around. It’s Rachel, surrounded by a bunch of kids wearing clothes that most definitely did not come from the EastSide Mall. Rachel Bruin, my ex-best friend. She stares at something above my left ear. Words climb up my throat. This was the girl who suffered through Brownies with me, who taught me how to swim, who understood about my parents, who didn’t make fun of my bedroom. If there is anyone in the entire galaxy I am dying to tell what really happened, it’s Rachel. My throat burns.
Her eyes meet mine for a second. “I hate you,” she mouths silently. She turns her back to me and laughs with her friends. I bite my lip. I am not going to think about it.
– p. 4-5
Here, Anderson does several key things. Specific, realistic details indicate the length and closeness of the girls’ relationship. We also begin to see the hurdles Melinda faces in daily life, including economic disparities and possible conflicts at home. Most importantly, we see how Melinda’s initial impulse to speak is quickly tamped down. We watch her attempt to reach out and instead, after being brushed back, sink into herself.
As the book progresses, Melinda continues to make confessions to the reader. Anderson is a master at using Melinda’s attention to convey her thoughts and emotions, as when Melinda goes to the mall to avoid school and notices the birds trapped inside:
No one knows how they got in, but they live in the mall and sing pretty. I lie on the bench and watch the birds weave through the warm air until the sun burns so bright I’m afraid it will make holes in my eyeballs.
– p. 99
In addition to opening up questions about the line between captivity and freedom, this moment touches on the small sadnesses we encounter every day without realizing it. Melinda, too, is a girl running through the motions of being “fine” without ever truly feeling that way. These moments of reflection often spark more direct confessions:
I should probably tell someone, just tell someone. Get it over with. Let it out, blurt it out.
I want to be in fifth grade again. Now that is a deep dark secret, almost as big as the other one. Fifth grade was easy—old enough to play outside without Mom, too young to go off the block. The perfect leash length.
– p. 99
Through these moments, we’re able to get inside Melinda’s head. Her confessions feel familiar, since many of them capture similar feelings and secrets we all hold. They also feel extremely intimate, showing the jumps and pauses in her mind and letting us linger on something only as long as she does.
In one final moment, we again see Anderson’s expert use of focus:
He tilted my face up to his. He kissed me, man kiss, hard sweet and deep. Nearly knocked me off my feet, that kiss. And I thought for just a minute there that I had a boyfriend, I would start high school with a boyfriend, older and stronger and ready to watch out for me. He kissed me again. His teeth ground hard against my lips. It was hard to breathe.
– p. 135
Moment by moment, we follow Melindas exhilaration as it begins to soar and then dive into something much more like fear.
There is so much more to say about Speak. It’s a wrenching and compelling story—and, for writers, a master class in technique and first-person point of view.
Its place as both a classic and a highly vilified text makes it a particularly poignant read for 2017. Though her book speaks powerfully for itself, Anderson also pushed back against its censors, writing, “[C]ensoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them” (Speak, afterword).
In Speak, Anderson captures the voice of a teenage girl who wishes she didn’t care, but does—who is funny but fractured, strong but struggling, raw on the page but hiding behind a mask around everyone she encounters. Through guiding the reader’s focus and letting us in to Melinda’s mind and world, Anderson paints an intimate, believable portrait of a girl just trying to get things right.