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A terrifying television memory I have is a clip from the "Twilight Zone" movie that I watched when I was in high school. I remember distinctly a woman without a mouth. Where lips and teeth should have been was smooth, stretched skin. Her "brother," a disturbed child who wishes for things and makes them happen, takes away her mouth because he doesn't want to hear what she has to say. The idea of someone stealing your speech, forcibly taking away your voice, is chilling. After reading SPEAK, Laurie Halse Anderson's first novel, this scene came back to me vividly.

In her debut novel, Anderson's main character, 14-year-old Melinda Sordino, has essentially stopped speaking. One of the reasons is because the world has stopped listening to her. After calling the police on an end-of-the-summer party, Melinda enters ninth grade as a pariah, ostracized by everyone in the school, including her best friends.

"SPEAK is a novel that will speak to anyone....You can't help but empathize with Melinda....and when the book draws to its climactic conclusion and the final page is turned, you will miss her."

"I am OUTCAST," she thinks on the first day of school as she walks down the hall facing the nasty taunts and sideways sneers with a stony veneer. She weaves through the hyena-like crowd at lunchtime and is greeted with a slap of mashed potatoes in her chest while looking for a seat. Fleeing the scene, Melinda gets in trouble with the hardened track coach and history teacher, Mr. Neck. Her voice dries up in her throat.

"It's easier not to say anything. Shut your trap, button your lip, can it. All that crap you hear on TV about communication and expressing feelings is a lie. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say."

It's a rough first day without any bright moments until art class when Melinda finally feels a glimmer of hope. The art teacher, Mr. Freedman, explains the year's assignment --- each student will be given one object that she will have to learn about during the school year. By the end of the year, the goal is to transform the object into something that evokes emotion, something that speaks. Melinda's object is a tree. The question is, by the end of the year, will she be able to get her tree to speak if she still cannot?

With no desire to speak about her pain to her friends, family, teachers or even herself, Melinda goes through the motions of living. She breathes, eats, sleeps and observes. Securing an abandoned janitor's room at school as her safe haven, Melinda hangs up pictures, reads books, and hides away from life, and especially IT, the dangerous jock who roams the halls and torments her. IT is the nightmare of her existence, the reason her mouth, body, and mind are scarred and rendered mute.

While reading SPEAK, you spend most of your time harbored in Melinda's mind, a place often filled with pain, and sometimes biting humor. Her reality consists of an ex-bestfriend who mouths the words, "I hate you," on the first day of school --- where her harried parents don't seem to notice that her lips are scabby and raw from biting down on them. Her one and only "friend," new girl Heather, uses her for lack of any other friends. She goes through the motions, and her life is as white and blank as the snow that covers her Syracuse home. However, despite the damage that has occurred, you feel as if Melinda is just waiting, biding her time, until she feels safe enough to emerge from her hardened protective shell. But as the novel progresses, you begin to wonder, will it be too late?

Nominated for a National Book Award for Young People's Literature, SPEAK is a novel that will speak to anyone who is a teenager or was one. You can't help but empathize with Melinda's silent pain or laugh inwardly at the many cliques she describes, or the number of times her school's mascot is changed because it is deemed inappropriate by the principal. It's high school all right, and Melinda is buried in adolescent tundra and emotional strife. You shadow her, waiting until she finds her voice, and when the book draws to its climactic conclusion and the final page is turned, you will miss her.

Reviewed by Dana Schwartz on April 23, 2001

by Laurie Halse Anderson