Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

I sat down and read Speak in a single day. A quick novel at around 50,000 words, it is also a compelling one. Laurie Halse Anderson works with an interesting premise when she writes a book about a girl who does not want to speak. As an author, that presents challenges because it limits the use of dialogue. Anderson does an excellent job creating a teen protagonist who, while mostly mute, provides the reader with a powerful story.

39280444Melinda attends Merryweather High School. It’s the typical school with the typical cliques, but she starts in September friendless. During the summer before her freshman year, she derailed the final summer fling by calling 911. The question left unanswered at the start of the novel — Why?  Readers slowly learn about how Melinda was raped at the party by “Andy Beast” an upperclassman who still attends Merryweather and views his actions as normal. Just when she begins to pull her life together through art class, a caring teacher, and a new love of gardening, Andy makes his return and Melinda needs to find her voice.

The story and Melinda’s journey are compelling. The author addresses Melinda’s muteness well. Anderson’s use of descriptive prose is a lesson in show don’t tell. From the get go, the reader is immersed in the scene. “The school bus wheezes to my corner. The door opens and I step up. The driver pulls away from the curb while I stand in the aisle. Where to sit? I’ve never been a back seat wastecase…This is what I’ve been dreading. As we leave the last stop, I am the only person sitting alone…The driver downshifts to drag us over the hills” (3).  Anderson’s use of description helps the reader envision Melinda’s life clearly as well as differentiate her inner and outer conflicts.

From bus rides to teacher such as Mr. Neck to Hairwoman to her friend’s house and her home life, the descriptions take us into Melinda’s world. But the author goes further than just describing the scene. Description is coupled with the main character’s inner monologue and readers quickly get a clear sense of Melinda as a struggling teen even though she says little.  This combination of descriptive prose and perceptive inner monologue gives the reader a clear view of not only Melinda’s world but the challenges she faces in that life.

Teachers and students, while secondary characters, are also part of the larger school, and the school is used to illustrate the passing of time. Anderson makes these characters both humorous and human through actions and descriptions. “The art room is one of the places I feel safe,” (160) Melinda says, and this is as much because of her art teacher as it is the physical space. But the school is more than a physical environment. Anderson does an excellent job showing changes throughout the year  through her only friend joinning “The Marthas”, by varying teachers’ appearance such as “Hairwoman no more”, as well as showing Melinda’s report card as the reader moves from marking period to marking period.

My only problem with the book is the author’s portrayal of Melinda’s parents. There is one scene when Melinda cuts her wrists with a paper clip, etching a design into her skin. “I open up a paper clip and scratch it along the inside of my left wrist. Pitiful. If a suicide attempt is a cry for help, then what is this? A whimper, a peep? I draw little window cracks of blood, etching line after line until it stops hurting” (87). When her mom sees this, she says, “I don’t have time for this, Melinda” (88). I have to question how many parents would react that way? Having raised a daughter, I thought that this was an unrealistic portrayal of how a parent would react. Cutting is a huge sign of a problem and Melinda is obviously not hiding it from her parents. Could her parents really be that dense, self-centered, or uncaring?

Obviously, an important subject to tackle, I understand how there might be some who say the book is controversial. Reading this book made me realize how important it is to shed light on the subject, especially after the author wrote in the Q & A about how she gets one question that shocks her. Boys ask her “Why Melinda was so upset about being raped” (204).

Anderson, Laurie Halse (2003). Speak. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

 

And We Stay Book Review

  1. Spoilers ahead!
  2. . I really didn’t like the book. Click away if either will irritate you.

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard didn’t work for me. I took it out of the library four or five times before I was able to power through. All the things I loved about the other novels I’ve read recently: complex characters, pacing and plot, use of time or flashbacks, and magical realism didn’t come together in And We Stay.

9780385740586The most interesting and relatable part of the story, Emily Beam and Paul’s relationship, was told through flashbacks. The book started out with Emily attending boarding school in Amherst, Mass. Through flashbacks the readers learned that her boyfriend Paul Wagoner brought a stolen gun into the library of their high school where he threatened Emily and then killed himself. As the story progressed, readers learned that Emily was pregnant and planning to have an abortion, which she ultimately does. Paul’s disintegrating relationship with Emily was one of the reasons he ended up with a gun in the library.

At the boarding school, Emily wrote poems to soothe her soul and deal with the trauma she went through. Inspired by Emily Dickinson, Emily Beam’s poems were interspersed throughout the book. One of the main reasons the book fell apart for me had to do with all the added poetry. Emily Beam wrote numerous poems during her time at boarding school printed on the pages of the book, but they did not resonate with me. They seemed superfluous and superficial. I skipped over many of them to get on with the story. If the author limited the number of poems, the verse would have been fine, but the poems happened often.

For example

PALL

Oh, yes, she could feel it/even though the bullet/had never stabbed her skin./ The bright white heat/ burned at her core/ where two lives/ beat, and if he’d aimed/ there and pulled the trigger,/red would have crested/ like a broken dam/ over her hands/ as her last word rushed/ up to her throat– Paul– / a sound that took no time and also lifetimes” (Hubbard 39).

It could my personal writing or reading style, but both the inclusion of the poems and the poems as written failed to engage me as a reader.

Emily also developed a quirky connection to Emily Dickinson, and the author supplied hints that the dead poet has returned to help modern Emily cope. Due to Emily Beam’s fascination with the dead poet, readers learned a lot about Dickinson’s history. While as an English teacher, I love knowing about poets, as a reader I wasn’t interested because it broke the flow of the narrative.

Finally, the connection to Emily Dickinson was supposed to be further demonstrated through magical realism, but the magic, lights turning on and snow falling, didn’t make a significant impact Emily or her poetry.  This was an area that could have been significantly improved and the magic intensified so that readers would be able to connect how Dickinson was helping Beam get through the turmoil she dealt with.

In addition, the characterization of modern-day Emily was weak and lifeless. I understand that the author wanted to portray her as depressed, but she came across as one dimensional during much of the book. I actually preferred Paul’s character better in the flashbacks because he realistic and emotional.  Her friends at the boarding school were also rather poorly drawn. The readers never really knew any of them in depth so they became stereotypical. Her offbeat roommate. K.T., filled the role while other characters came in as the artist, the jock, the rebel, etc.

Finally, the pacing was glacier slow. Nothing happened at the boarding school for most of the book other than Emily drinking coffee, writing poems, going to class, and trying not to make friends. Over all, I would not recommend the book as it was very forgettable.

I wanted to end with a positive note. The writing itself was beautiful. Jenny Hubbard is obviously a talented author who crafted beautiful prose and descriptions. “During Trigonometry with soft-spoken, square haired Mrs. Frame, Emily imagines all the identities she could invent” (Hubbard 49).  I loved the way that I could visualize that clear, initial impression of each character. I only wish that initial impression could have deepened as the book progressed.

 

 

Hubbard, J. (201$). And We Stay. Random House: New York, NY.

Everybody Sees the Ants Review

I recently finished Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King and enjoyed it. Beware spoilers ahead…

It begins with Lucky Linderman, an ordinary high school student, except that he was being bullied. Badly bullied. Growing up, he rarely felt like he fit in, but did okay, skating under the radar, until he developed a questionnaire about suicide for a class project. Then it wasn’t only teachers who took notice, but the bullies as well. Lucky became the target of Nader McMillan. The abuse finally went too far at the town pool during the summer when McMillian crushes Lucky’s face into the asphalt.

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McMillan was not Lucky’s only problem. His mom was a squid. She swam obsessively to deal with her problems, but once out of the pool pretended everything was fine. His dad was a turtle, retreating from problems, rather than dealing with them. One of those problems had appeared in Lucky’s dreams. Lucky’s father was severely impacted by the fact that his dad, Lucky’s grandfather, never made it back from the Vietnam War. Every night throughout the novel, Lucky’s grandfather showed up in his dreams as he slept.

Lucky attempted to save his grandfather each night, and these escape attempts helped him cope. In his dangerous, wartime dreamscape, Lucky was strong and heroic. I constantly questioned, was it only a dream because Lucky woke up with more than memories. Items such as cigarettes and chewing gum were at his bedside when he awoke.

The protagonist had another secret as well. Ants. The insects helped him cope with life and provided advice. They were his cheering squad, his conscious, and the inner voice that allowed him to successfully navigate the harsh realities around him.

After Lucky’s last run-in with Nader at the pool, his mom rushed him away to her brother’s house and the rest of his summer was spent in Tempe, Arizona. There, Lucky bonded with his Uncle Dave, until he learned his uncle was not the stellar man he pretended to be, cheating on Aunt Jodi who turned to pills to cope. He also met an older, wiser teen, who he crushed over. She faced problems of her own, but her situation finally allowed Lucky put his life into perspective.

What I loved about the book was the reality and complexity of the characters, family dynamics, and the plot, which is why I spent so much time outlining it above. Often, I parents are made out to be cliché in books about teens, but all the characters were realistic and believable in Everybody Sees the Ants. I especially liked how Lucky’s mom was portrayed. As a reader (and mom), I could see how much she cared for her son even if she didn’t know what to do about the bullying. While all the characters displayed shortcomings, which only made them more realistic, the relationships came across as truthful and loving. At the end, there was hope for a better future.

It was interesting to view the world through Lucky’s eyes, giving the reader a truthful teen perspective. He disliked his overbearing, pill-popping aunt until he realizes she was coping with a cheating husband that everyone in town seems to know about. Once Lucky realizes his aunt’s life is as complicated as his own, he shows empathy for her situation and develops a connection with her.

The pacing was exceptional, and I enjoyed how the author took Lucky away from the bullying for a while so he could examine life and find himself. Ants was an intense story, but it could have been much darker. Removing Lucky from the bullying gave the reader much needed levity because even though the reader is removed from the day to day bullying, they learn about how truly heinous the situation had become for Lucky. When he shares the “real story” to his new friends it was emotional. I guessed the twist early on, but still felt the impact of it, when the truth was told.

The use of magical realism remained excellent throughout the story. It could be hard for a reader to suspend disbelief if the magical realism doesn’t ring true enough, but I had no problem believing the magical realism of Lucky’s dreams and loved how at the end, Lucky brought his grandfather’s wedding ring to his dad. Magical moment. Tears. Throughout the novel, the author also used the dreams as a way to help Lucky escape from reality. In the dreams, he was both physically fit and mentally strong. By the end of the story, Lucky realizes he brought those same qualities to his day to day life.

My critique of the story centered around the fact that it read a little dated. Even though it was written in 2014, there were no cell phones. This left me confused. In addition, the ants, a figment of Lucky’s imagination, also left me a little chagrined. While I was able to embrace the dreams as magical realism, the ants were a little harder to accept. At points, I wondered what their role was in the novel.  These were minor faults in a stellar read.

Five ants!!!! Over all, a great read and one I would highly recommend to students.

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