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SPEAK, Suffragettes, and Sexual Violence: Laurie Halse Anderson Reflects on Her Seminal YA Novel

In 1999, a woman who was to become a major voice in YA made her fiction debut with the novel Speak: a spare, biting, redemptive story about a girl starting high school as an outcast in the aftermath of her rape.

It’s been nearly two decades since the publication of Speak, and Laurie Halse Anderson, its architect, has gone on to pen the incredible body of work that won her the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2010. Still, though, enthusiasm for her debut has never flagged. In classrooms and in libraries, the novel continues to find its way into the hands of teenagers. As more YA novels about sexual assault and the more recently termed rape culture gain ground, it continues to act as a sort of lodestone.

Speak’s effect on the YA literary canon has been undeniable: it was a National Book Award Finalist and a Printz Honor Book, and it was adapted into a film in 2004. And this coming February, the Anderson-adapted Speak: The Graphic Novel, comes out from Farrar.

Recently, we caught up with Anderson, who discussed Speak’s impact, the graphic novel adaptions, and the continued importance of writing for teenagers.


MAGGIE REAGAN: Speak was released nearly two decades ago—why do you think it still has such an impact on teens today?

LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON: I wish I could say that it didn’t. I wish our culture could have figured out how to encourage people to not rape other people, to not touch bodies without asking sober, informed permission first, and to respect everybody. But we are so stinking far away from that, and that’s why it still has an impact. Too often parents still haven’t learned how to be comfortable with the language surrounding sexual violence. Too many people still buy into the mythology that the only victims of sexual violence are people who are somehow “not good.” If your children are “good,” then they’re going to be fine; you don’t have to worry about them. Every time I start to get angry about parents, I have to take a deep breath and remember that they were raised by people who didn’t know how to talk about this, either. It still has an impact because almost every woman I know and probably almost every woman in America has been victimized by some sort of sexual violence, and an awful lot of men have too.


Speak came out before there was much discussion in kidlit of rape culture. In the past few years especially, there have been many excellent books on the topic. What has it been like to watch the evolution of a conversation that effectively, in many ways, you started?

I’m not sure I started it. I maybe held up a mirror to it earlier than a lot of other people did. It would be interesting to do a search into the genesis of the expression “rape culture”—I don’t think I had ever heard of it when I was writing Speak, I don’t remember it ever being used in conversations about the book or sexual violence when Speak came out almost 20 years ago. It’s come into currency recently. And remember that when Speak came out in 1999, the internet hadn’t really been invented yet. Back then, to get the word out about my book, I actually went to a printer—like a person who prints things on paper—and made teacher guides and mailed them to the people that I knew. Through the United States Postal Service. With stamps. There was no forum where we could have conversations. It can’t be overstated how important that is.


Visual art plays such a vital role in Melinda’s story. How has it been to see the novel you conceived translated into the more visual formats of film and, now, a graphic novel?

It’s important to remember that you can never really take a book and put it on screen, especially a book that relies on such a traumatized, depressed narrator. The way she filters the world in her narration of the book can’t be done from a third-person point of view, which is what you’re required to do when you’re making a movie.

As for the graphic novel, I was so thrilled we were able to get Emily Carroll to be the artist. I was part of the discussion about who we wanted to work with and she was the top of my list. And she is the perfect person. I’ve done illustrated books before, both fiction and nonfiction picture books, so I’ve had the experience of putting my words on paper and trying to visualize what it might look like once the artist gets to take his or her place next to me in the book, and I’m always blown away. This time, though, I was blown out of the atmosphere. Emily brought her special energy to the story and I think she lifts it to a new level. It has been a gift and an honor to stand with this tremendous art. I think the two of us combined have created something greater than the two of us alone.


Art from the forthcoming graphic novel


What kind of input did you have into the creation of the graphic novel?

I wrote the adaptation: I designed my own template and it got proofed by my editor. For every page in the book, I would pull out what I thought were the most important actions, ones that Emily might consider illustrating. But it was with the full knowledge that she’s the artist, [and] there’s a reason she’s the artist. She can conceive of visual things way better than I can. Then I would put in the narrative text and any speech bubbles or things like that that I thought we needed. The interesting part for the writer is taking out as many words as possible, to open up the page and leave space for the art to do the talking. I think we went through four different passes. The whole thing took like three years.

In terms of the adaptation, I did find a couple of themes that I felt duplicated the same beat, like I was hitting the same note on the piano. I cut a few scenes, I pushed together a few scenes that are separate in the novel, making things in graphic novel more streamlined. As a writer, it was nice to be able to clean that up.

Joy Peskin, my editor, and I sat down and went through the graphic novel page by page and shared our impressions about the weight the words were carrying and the weight the art was carrying. Early on in the process, we got to a couple of places where I said, about the art, “I just wish she would be more Emily!” Emily was being so respectful of the story, which was very sweet and gracious and honorable of her, but I needed to communicate more clearly that I wanted her fingerprints all over it. In the next round, Emily really did her Emily magic, and it was extremely satisfying to see.

And I want to give a shout-out to First Second books and Macmillan, because they understood a little earlier and a little better than others how significant graphic novels could be. Human beings are designed to relate to image as well as to stories told with words, and I’m really proud to see my work transmuted into this new medium. It’s a very exciting time to be a creative person.


You’ve never been afraid to tackle difficult topics in your novels. What is it about these topics that draw you?

My adolescence was fraught with issues. Some of it had to do with my father’s PTSD and alcoholism and other mental health issues. And a lot of had to do with the fact that I was raped when I was 13 and I didn’t tell anybody for 25 years. I had some great moments in my childhood, but mostly, my teenage years were pretty dark, and I remember so clearly what that feels like. I remember being so baffled by the world and not having anyone who would help me understand it. The books they were giving us to read were ridiculous—they were written for old, rich, white guys 200 years earlier. They weren’t written for me or for any of my classmates. While I was reading everything I could find in the library, no one was handing anyone in my generation the kind of books that would help us make sense of this confusing world.

I care deeply about teenagers. This is where we lose our people. We do a fairly good job of loving and taking care of children in the U.S.—though not all children—but there’s something about American culture, I think maybe because it’s consumer-driven: when people have grown-up sized bodies but are still teenagers, when they’re still childlike in their hearts and their understanding of the world, we abandon them. So many of them wind up getting hurt. And those hurts translate into adult lives that are not as filled with joy and strength as they could have been.


Laurie Halse Anderson

When studying the suffragettes, Melinda learns that silence can be a powerful weapon, but also that there are times when it is better to speak up. How do you think this lesson will translate to teens today?

I have to tell you, I’ve been pouting a little bit since 1999, since I thought I was so slick putting that in the book. I thought oh, what a wonderful opportunity to talk about the suffragettes! We don’t talk about them enough! And it rarely comes up in interviews or even in the classroom, probably because it happens deep enough into the book that the teachers have already figured out their lesson plans.

My mom was born 14 years after women got the right to vote. That’s like yesterday. And I think as we have these discussions, as we talk about our history and the roots of modern feminism, it’s so important to honor those women, honor the fact that they got jailed, that they got force-fed, that some of them lost their lives, lost everything but their lives, because they were fighting so hard for a voice. And here we are a hundred years later after they got us the right to vote, and women are still being ignored and silenced and harmed. Our voices are not yet equal. And I’m saying that as a white woman. For women who occupy the intersections–women of color, or transgender women—there are that many more barriers to their voices having equal purchase in the community at large. We need to honor all of that and scream louder.



About the Author:

Maggie Reagan works for Booklist as an associate editor in the Books for Youth department. In addition to the required love of reading, she is also an adventure junkie, animal hugger, and stringed-instrument enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @MagdalenaRayGun.

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