October 3, 2008
Banned/Challenged Book Profile: Speak
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.