Speak

Speak Cover

“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside—walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It’s the saddest thing I know.” – Mr. Freeman

Fear, it is something that can control our lives. It can infect our daily routine and cause us to feel a constant unease that can ruin the most basic of activities. Now ramp that fear up to a traumatic experience and it begins to envelop every aspect of us. Something as basic as looking in the mirror or eating breakfast can be ruined by memories of that experience, and the fear often flows back into our minds again and again. It is this type of fear that Melinda faces in Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel, Speak. The book is a first-person journal of Melinda’s life as she enters high school, as a freshman with no friends. They have all rejected her because she accidentally called the cops to a party in the summer. But they don’t understand that the reason she was calling the police was because she had been raped by a senior in her future school, so she called the police and didn’t know what to say. She remained silent on the line. It is this silence that encapsulates Melinda’s journey throughout the novel, and why it is called Speak.

The big theme that is spread throughout the novel is Melinda’s search for a voice. She struggles to cope with trying to tell someone what happened, which leads her to a state of depression. Her parents don’t help any, as they are both preoccupied with their own lives. Her only friend, Heather, ends up ditching her for a group of more popular girls, and her silence ends up making her a target for some of her teachers in school. The only person that seems to be okay with her silence is her Art teacher, Mr. Freeman, who just tries to nurture Melinda with art, to try and convince her to create something and express herself through her art. It is this nurturing voice and soft guidance that helps Melinda to discover her method of expressing her anxiety, her pain, and, ultimately, her fear. Her ability to find her voice also comes from her will to protect her former best friend Rachel, who began dating Melinda’s rapist not long after the traumatic incident. Melinda wishes to keep her safe, and it is this fear for Rachel that allows Melinda to speak up about being raped and be free of the burden she has carried around for so long.

While I know of a few teachers that have used Speak in their classroom, I was not enthralled with the book. One of my issues with it came from the fact that I did not really connect with Melinda as a character. I feel as though this may be because I have never really felt fear and I have never had a traumatic experience that I have had to work through. I am also a fairly loud individual and rarely feel at a loss for words or feel the need to be reserved in the way I speak. So I was not a fan of the novel; however, unlike my last review, I did feel as though Anderson’s characters were fully fleshed out and were well crafted. I was just unable to connect and struggled to dig into the story. I definitely think it is a viable novel for lit circles, but it has some strong content that I would suggest needs to be used with grade 9 students or higher. For Lit Circles, I would use it with Anderson’s own Twisted, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone or Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall. Each of these books also deals with a traumatic experience that leads the protagonist to look for their voice to express what they had seen or experienced. Speak is a frustratingly good novel that I just didn’t connect with, but will connect with many who have struggled to find their own voice.

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Leviathan

Leviathan

“Maybe this was how you stayed sane in wartime: a handful of noble deeds amid the chaos”– Alek

What if? It is one of the great questions asked about history. What if one of the plans to assassinate Hitler had been successful? What if Rome had not been sacked by the Goths? What if Darwin had not made his scientific theories about evolution? The answers to these questions will never be known, but many authors have taken this concept and put it into print. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan is one of those books. Leviathan takes the era around World War One and changes the setting somewhat. The global powers are not divided based on old alliances, but based around their reliance on either steam-powered engines and war machines, which dubs those people the Clankers, or genetically fabricated beasts, which gives those nations the name the Darwinists, due to Darwin’s genetic discoveries. Westerfeld has created a fascinating alternate universe in which two differing paths of science have created world-wide allegiances. But, much like the state of affairs in Europe leading up to 1914, the European superpowers wanted to start a war and test their technological power.

However, Leviathan is not a novel about the grandly sweeping movement of a World War and the interactions of world powers, it is the story of a young prince forced from his home by his own nation, it is the story of a young girl hiding her gender from the British Air Service to escape into the airborne world, it is the intertwining of these two stories. Alek is the heir to the Hapsburg dynasty in Austria-Hungary after his parents are assassinated, but his country does not want him to take control, so he must run for his life. Deryn is a girl, dealing with the loss of her father and the attempt of her mother to “girlify” her, so she lies about her gender and joins the British Air Service. Once they come together, the two bond over common backgrounds, although one is a commoner and one is royalty, as they both have lost their fathers and they both have a secret to keep, Alek hiding his royalty and Deryn hiding her gender. They also end up working together against a common enemy, as the old saying goes “an enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Courage is a strong theme throughout the book, as both protagonists must overcome their fears and obstacles to support their countrymen. Deryn is constantly trying to keep her fellow crewmen alive and fight for her country. Alek risks his own life and safety to save the downed crew of a massive British Air Service beast. Both must test their boundaries as they push to keep their men safe and prove their worth to their elders. This is a common theme for war novels, as it is often the courage of singular men and women that helps contribute to the victories of nations. Leviathan is no different in its presentation of war and its impact on those involved, but Westerfeld puts the reader in the shoes of two teens experiencing this steampunk war first hand. This allows students to be more engaged in a war novel by seeing from someone in their age group.

I would recommend this book for grades 7 and up, as the plot moves fairly quickly and the vocabulary is not overly challenging; however, I would also recommend it to students who have covered World War One and could make comparisons to that which they have learned about it previously. The story is engaging, and the theme of courage is one that is always interesting for students who want to life vicariously through the adventures of others in novels. For Lit Circles, I would pair it with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, or Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds,as they all deal with the need for courage in the face of danger or war erupting around them. I enjoyed Leviathan, especially the steam punk alternate universe, but it was not quite as engaging for me as Westerfeld’s Uglies was. I am hoping that the second book in the series, Behemoth, will ramp up the excitement.