In the late 1990’s, Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK became an instant classic that broke ground in Young Adult literature. The novel gave voice to sexual assault and its aftermath via a raw and honest narrative that refused to talk down to readers who had experienced similar incidents of abuse. The book appears regularly on various “banned books” lists, while it has also continued to be reprinted and appreciated.
Now, Ms. Anderson has skillfully adapted SPEAK the novel into graphic novel form, and award-winning artist Emily Carroll gives the protagonist, Melinda Sordino, a vulnerability with a core of strength. The illustrations, which use silhouettes and shading liberally, hearken back to horror imagery, which is entirely appropriate for how Melinda feels about high school and the events that overshadow her freshman year.
Fans of the original novel will notice how the prose has evolved into a seamless tale of shortened descriptions made intense with imagery. This is especially true in Melinda’s descriptions of her inner fears, which suffocate her, and the scenes in which her attacker — IT — comes close to and interacts with her. It’s a powerful, visceral combination.
The atmosphere around sexual assault and harassment has changed dramatically since SPEAK first came out in 1999, but the story and its impact on those involved are as relevant as ever. Anderson details the physical and emotional effects with honesty and a raw passion that will help those who have not experienced sexual assault first-hand to empathize. For teens who can relate all too well to the events, SPEAK: The Graphic Novel may be a salve and catharsis or a painful trigger of their experiences. Trusted adults in a young person’s life should keep this in mind.
I highly recommend that parents and teachers read this graphic novel to understand (or to remind themselves) what being a teenager in crisis feels like and looks like. This is a powerful, important book.