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Speaking Up For Speak


It took me two years to read Speak. I picked it up when I was just starting to write YA fiction, and when I started reading the book I quickly put two and two together and realized that the narrator Melinda, a sarcastic yet likable girl, was raped at a party by Andy Evans, a popular boy at the high school she is about to attend. Due to a misunderstanding, she is shunned by her classmates and (now) former friends.  Somehow she muddles through school, through help from an art teacher, Mr. Freeman.  Slowly but surely, Melinda comes to terms with what happened to her.

I put the book down, not able to read it. Yet I kept on hearing wonderful things about it. Finally Kathryn Reiss assigned the book to read in my Advanced YA writing class, and one night, I forced myself to read it. I laughed a lot. Yes, I laughed, because Anderson made Melinda have such a sharp eye for details, of everything that is going around her.  She is someone to care about, and admire.

Yet Speak has been challenged over and over again for the subject matter, and has been challenged again by a Dr. Kirby Scroggins, who wrote an op-ed about questionable books for Springfield Missouri's The News-Leader.  Dr. Scroggins maintains that Speak is "porn" This confused me, because I didn't remember hearing bad jazz music or a Playboy Bunny in the pages. I read on with Scroggins' critique of the book:

This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

Sadly, I believe Dr. Scroggins has read a different book than Speak.  

Melinda's family is dysfunctional. No getting around that. Her parents are detached and have no clue about what's going on with their daughter.  Yet they try to reach out to Melinda and help her, even though she cannot tell them she had been raped. I hate to break it to Dr. Scroggins, but there are dysfunctional families in the world. Maybe reading about one can help someone cope with their own family.

Teachers are not losers; in fact Mr. Freeman is the one adult Melinda can trust. He challenges her with comments about her art and tries to get her out of her shell. It is because of Mr. Freeman that she comes to school. That is what a good teacher is; to show light in a dark world.

As for the cheerleading squad, I can't remember them having abortions in the book. Yes, maybe they were a bit stereotypical, but they provide comic relief in the book with the new cheer: "We are the Hornets! The Horny Horny Hornets!"  Giggle! Hornets! Who knew they were comic material?

With the "female parts"  I'm just going to say the female parts because hey, I can: vagina and breasts. The last time I checked, they aren't two of the seven words you can't say on television.   Plus I don't think people would be shocked by reading the words in print. Quite frankly, I find the word rape more offensive.

Regarding the two rape scenes: Once again, Dr. Scroggins has it wrong. There is one rape scene. The scene is hard to read yet Anderson handles it with sensitivity and dignity. The reader should be upset by what happened, yet I wonder how many girls read that scene and realize oh whoa, I think that happened to me. Then they get help. That is what Toni Morrison meant when she said "The function of freedom is to free someone else." Many girls have been freed by Speak, and that is the goal of literature of all forms: to see something differently than they did before.

I'm sure Dr. Scroggins believes he's coming from a good place. However, taking Speak away from teens is not the answer.  Reading the book is the answer, and then an adult read it as well. Then talk about what happens. And that's the payoff in all of this: discussing a book, seeing what's there.

After I was done with Speak, I wondered why did it take so long for me to read it in the first place? Because there were times it felt too real, too much. Yet I'm glad I read the book, not only because it's a great book, but it made me aware that no matter what age, high school doesn't change. Girls should not suffer alone. And books shouldn't be removed because one person objects.