October 3, 2008

Banned/Challenged Book Profile: Speak

Posted in Books, Censorship, Children and adolescents, Literature at 6:08 pm by The Lizard Queen

The publisher’s blurb for Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak reads as follows:

Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary first novel has captured the imaginations of teenagers and adults across the country.

The “something” Melinda is trying not to think about is the fact that she was raped at that end-of-summer party, which is also the real reason she called the police.*  The rape, the way Melinda is treated by her classmates (including the rapist), and her reactions to both are a big part of why the book is assigned so widely in schools — for example, one summer (2002) when I was working at a bookstore the book was assigned as summer reading to a large number of local high school students.  Of course, that content is also why the book is frequently objected to (a line from a one-star review on Amazon.com (the last review on the page): “This book should be for mature readers because of offensive language and adult subject matter”) and challenged (one such challenge is discussed by the author here).

The folks at Parents Against Bad Books in Schools excerpted some of the language and subject matter they find objectionable at their website.  (It’s terribly designed even simply from a practicality standpoint; the excerpts from Speak are near the end of the page.)  The objectionable words I was able to pick out of the jumble of quoted material are “bitch/bitchy,” “asshole,” and “bullshit,” along with references to condoms (“Home of the Trojans didn’t send a strong abstinence message, so they [renamed us] Blue Devils”) and abortion.  I have to say, though, if parents think their teenagers (the book is generally recommended for readers 13 years old and up) haven’t heard those words before, both from their peers and from adults, those parents are sorely mistaken.

As for the subject matter, the PABBIS site contains what seem to be the two passages that discuss rape in the greatest detail: one in which Melinda is remembering the rape at the end-of-summer party, and one from close to the end of the book, in which the rapist tries to attack Melinda again.  In spite of the fact that some of the reviews on Amazon.com and discussions elsewhere describe these accounts as “graphic,” they’re not.  They’re heartbreaking, certainly, and distressing, and possibly triggering for someone who’s experienced sexual assault themselves, but not at all graphic.  (Unless by “graphic” they mean simply “put into words.”)

I find it interesting that sexual assault and its aftermath (including self-injury and suicidal thoughts) are characterized as “adult subject matter.”  The unfortunate truth is that many young people experience sexual assault.  Some statistics from RAINN.org:

15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under age 12.

  • 29% are age 12-17.
  • 44% are under age 18.
  • 80% are under age 30.
  • 12-34 are the highest risk years.

Furthermore, “According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey — the country’s largest and most reliable crime study — there were 272,350 sexual assaults in 2006 (the most recent data available)” (emphasis in the original).  Taking those statistics as being a rough representative of the year-by-year norm, that means approximately 80,000 people between the ages of 12 and 17 are the victims of sexual assault each year — and, incidentally, that’s roughly the age group Speak is aimed at.

Though I’m not a parent myself, I think I can understand the parental impulse to try to shield one’s child from stories and discussions about rape in the hopes that rape will never touch that child’s life.  However, I vehemently disagree with that tactic.  It might be too optimistic to think that reading this book might keep a young person from sexually assaulting one of their peers, or that having read it would somehow keep someone from being raped.  But it might keep someone who has experienced sexual assault from feeling so alone, and it might help students (not to mention teachers, administrators, and parents) to understand what victims of sexual assault go through, so that they might be able to act and speak with greater empathy when they encounter someone who has experienced similar trauma.

In the notes at the end of the Platinum Edition of Speak, Anderson gets at the heart of the matter:

But censoring 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.

*Please note that I haven’t actually read the book — though researching it has made me want to remedy that — so it’s possible I might be slightly off on some details.



  1. […] in Blogging, Feminism at 2:19 pm by The Lizard Queen I am honored to have had my post on Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak included in the most recent Carnival Against Sexual Violence.  As always, the carnival is […]

  2. Melissa Mak said,

    I am reading the book speak at the time, and i think that it is a very good book so far. It has some bad langauge and some sexual content, but that is part of what makes the book more interesting. In my class we had to choose a banned or challenged book to read and i choose “Speak”. I am very egar to finish it.

  3. Cassidy Lucas said,

    This book was very vivid I am reading this for a book report in my reading class I have a very tight description of this and it is really good it is a book it is very interesting because a girl has a big problem im in middle school and reading this book for a book report based on books that were usually banned or challenged.I am guessing that this book is challenged.

  4. I am guessing that this book is challenged.

    I believe you’re correct on that point, Cassidy; I don’t think the book has actually gotten banned anywhere (though, of course, the pessimist in me wants to add, “…yet”).

  5. Cassidy Lucas said,

    thank you I say you can really help people i have tried to find out if my book was banned or challenged all over the internet and you can really help me out.What is that picture you have???

  6. Mom of a Freshman said,

    I read Speak and I think it is a great book. As the mother of a 15 year old, I have to say that my first reaction to this book was typical of a parent, wanting to protect my child from terrible things. Then, of course, my common sense kicked in and I realized that the best way to protect your children is to educate them, and Speak does just that. Melinda’s reaction to what happened to her, and the other students’ reaction to what they think happened will make you think and hopefully learn empathy and compassion for others. I hope that other parents will at least read the book (or watch the movie) before jumping to any conclusions or challenging it.

  7. Jesus said,

    I’m barley started reading this book and i think its prtetty good i’m a junior and i’m doing a project for my english class which i have to find a banned book and i chose this book because it looks great but i still don’t know why is it challenged….. if someone could hit me up it would be really helpful!!!!! thanks!!!!

  8. Taylor :) said,

    i had to pick a book from the banned or challangelled list at school. Its a very good book the only thing is that i have to type a research paper on why it was banned or chalangelled and also when, where, and who i cant find anything if you know any websites please write back and reply, thanks so much:)

    • Kelsie said,

      !Heyy, in my language class we have to do a 3 page essay on it too. Well i went to…..bannedbookschallenge.blogspot.com….. to get my information and stuff. Its a good site. Well have fun it suck peace! 🙂

  9. cooolster said,

    you guys are lame, good book, get over it

  10. cooolster said,

    and by the way, wha the hells comes up with the name “lizard queen”????

  11. Man, I am really going to have to contact the management: the quality of trolls around here lately has been seriously sub-par. A critique of my handle from someone who’s dubbed themselves “cooolster”? Seriously?

    Also, for the record, any future comments stating that Speak is a good book and that people complaining about it (note: no one here is complaining about it) need to “get over it” will be deleted, or perhaps replaced with pictures of lizards, depending on my mood — I’m leaving cooolster’s comment up there as a representative example.

    Furthermore, I’m not responding to any requests for more information about how/where/why Speak has been challenged or banned. The links in the post provide some beginning information; if you need more, I highly recommend you start with Google, or — even better — visit your local library and speak with someone who works there. I’m not here to do your research for you.

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