During the 2021-2022 school year, more than 1600 books were banned from public schools across 32 states (Figueroa). If you are unfamiliar, banning a book consists of removing it from a library or school, while challenging a book is the attempt to ban it. This occurs because officials deem the book sexually explicit, having offensive language, LBGTQA+ content, violence, and being considered unfit for an age group, among many more examples. The act of banning and challenging books is the best-known example of censorship or taking away free speech. When books are taken from libraries and schools, officials hurt those who see themselves within the stories.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a novel that frequents the banned and challenged list. This novel follows Melinda Sordino and her experiences through high school at Merryweather High during her ninth-grade year. The first few chapters of the book depict Melinda like many high schoolers. Like any teenager, Melinda and her friend Rachel experiment with new identities, clothes, and personalities. We see Melinda struggle with her identity, family, and attending a new school. While at a high school party with Rachel, Melinda desperately tries to fit in and consumes multiple alcoholic beverages. She leaves the crowd for a breath of fresh air, which is when the Beast pounces. Between loud music, alcohol, and no consent, the Beast rapes Melinda. In an effort to get help, she calls the police, which quickly displaces the party, sending adolescents running in all directions and leaving Melinda alone once again. Understandably, Melinda is sent into a deep depression, becomes more isolated from her ‘friends,’ and loses all sense of her self-worth. To put the cherry on top, Rachel becomes friends with the Beast. Going to movies, sitting together at lunch, and not long after, they began to date. This pushes Melinda into more of a depression. Although there is a happy ending (no spoilers here!), this is an excellent story of a survivor and how Melinda overcomes what happened to her. According to RAINN, “on average, there are 463,634 rape and sexual assault victims each year in the United States”. So, why is this book constantly challenged and banned, seemingly being kept from those that may relate to this story? Let’s take a look.
Speak has been challenged in 2011, 2012, 2021, and 2022. YEARS after the novel was first published in 1999. Although there is no apparent reason for ten years between some of the challenges, it is interesting these challenges came years after the novel was published. It was first challenged by an associate professor at Missouri State University in 2010. The professor, Wesley Scroggins, “deemed the discussion of rape as “soft pornography.” To him, the novel was “filthy” and lacked morality” (Winkler). It has also been challenged due to a political viewpoint, claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity (Winkler). Scroggins is correct in one sense; rape is immoral, but it is a reality for many people, and Melinda is one of those people. In a recent interview with Ali Velshi in August of 2022, Halse-Anderson states, “anyone who finds the rape up of a 13-year-old as pornographic has larger problems that I can’t help with” (Velshi). There are no vulgar words during the description of the rape, but the inclusion of rape is what many find uncomfortable. Let’s say Scroggins was successful in his challenge, and this book was removed from libraries and schools. Those searching for reclamation of their lives, their voice, will no longer have this book. Melinda will lose her voice again, and this time it will stay lost. On this theme, Halse-Anderson states, “our kids need us to have the courage to talk about things that many parents are uncomfortable with.” Banning this novel means silencing the stories and voices of those that have experienced rape. Indeed, parts of this novel are uncomfortable and hard to read, but it is important to be uncomfortable sometimes. We need to work on being uncomfortable so that others may share their stories and so we can help survivors of sexual abuse; everyone is harmed when sexual abuse is not talked about.
When I first read Speak, I was in 8th grade and reading an experience similar to mine. Three years prior, I was sexually assaulted by a classmate. I had told an adult, but I still found myself semi-voiceless as only a three-day suspension was punishment, and I was bullied by the offender for many years after. When it happened again, three years after reading this book, I found comfort in knowing there were others like me (although this should have never happened in the first place). I knew it was not my fault; I knew I could grow from the ‘experience,’ and Melinda helped me. From Melinda:
Knowing about sexual assault can keep it from happening. We, as readers, need to keep this novel on the shelves so students know that rape is something that can be discussed and is nothing to be ashamed of. They can ask for help and receive it when they are ready. This book can be removed from shelves when it is no longer socially relevant (good luck with that).
Collegian, The. Banned Book Highlight: "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson., 2018. Web. Oct 25, 2022.
Figueroa, Ariana. New Jersey Monitor September. An ‘unprecedented Flood’ of Book Bans Engulfs U.S. School Districts, PEN Report Says., 2022. Web. Oct 25, 2022.
Halse-Anderson, Laurie. Speak. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999.
RAINN. Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence. Accessed 23 October 2022.
Velshi, Ali. "Laurie Halse Anderson on "Speak" | Velshi Banned Book Club List." The Philadelphia Citizen. -08-08T20:44:20+00:00 2022. Web. Oct 25, 2022 <https://thephiladelphiacitizen.org/laurie-halse-anderson-speak/>.
Wikipedia. “First Edition of Speak.” Wikipedia. [Book Cover]
Winkler, Savannah. Banned Book Highlight: "Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson., 2018. Web. Oct 25, 2022.
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This book review is part of a series of Banned Books Week reviews from Dr. Emilee Howland's Fall 2022 ENGL 460: Banned Books class.
For more information about Banned Books Week and how to get involved, please visit BannedBooks.org.