The #MeToo conversation begun 2 decades ago: a review of “Speak: The Graphic Novel”

March 07, 2018

(Originally posted on my old book review blog, HilliterateBlog!)

Hi friends! I'm back today to talk about one of the best reads of 2018 so far, Speak: The Graphic Novel written by Laurie Halse Anderson with artwork by Emily Carroll. TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault, rape, sexual harrassment.

IMG_4284

This is a new rendition of Halse Anderson's iconic 1999 young adult novel, Speak. The graphic novel uses images and more abbreviated text to tell the same original story, that of high school freshman Melinda Sordino and the secret she carries in silence. In the summer before the start of the book, Melinda was raped by a popular senior boy at a party. In shock after the fact, she called the cops to the house — a decision that immediately made her peers resent and ostracize her. She tells no one what really happened, how she was attacked, why she called the police, which only serves to isolate herself further. The story follows Melinda through her difficult first year of high school and the months after her rape as she tries to process what happened. Readers see how devastating the aftermath can be for assault victims, how resistant others can be to understand or even to ask what could be wrong, and why it's so difficult for victims to report, among other lessons about the ruinous effects of sexual violence. It is also a story of a victim eventually learning resilience and starting to find her voice once more.

I was amazed when I realized that Speak was first published almost 20 years ago, as it was a story so ahead of its time. Sure, the late 90s weren't exactly like the 1950s in terms of gender disparity or anything, but sexual violence was not a common theme in media or something people discussed much at all. If anything, discussions of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are only becoming super prevalent...now? Seriously — in the midst of our "me too" and "time's up" awakening, I've seen some perspectives along the lines of "this is too much" or "speaking out and making these allegations is just becoming a pop culture fad." In reality, it only seems that way because NO ONE was talking about it until recently. Sexual violence and harassment have been happening for a looooong time; it is only in the past few years that brave women have felt comfortable enough to come forward and talk about their experiences, and (quite importantly) that society has started to believe them.

Needless to say, for Halse Anderson to start this conversation at all in a story based on her personal experiences two decades ago was incredible; to do so through a book for teens was monumental. Its popularity quickly spread, leading to its assignment as mandatory reading in high schools across the country. It made many people uncomfortable, of course, but in a way that opened up necessary conversations about sexuality and consent between children and their adult guardians/mentors. By releasing a graphic novel version of Speak last month, I believe Carroll and Halse Anderson are making their story even more accessible to today's teens and especially to readers more receptive to a nontraditional novel format. The shortened text made the novel itself a quick and easy read for me, but combined with the artwork became even more compelling, sucking me in and causing me to linger on each page and fully ingest all of the images. The artwork, in my opinion, enhances the original story and makes it all the more powerful, putting a face with Melinda's thoughts and feelings. We see her appearance deteriorate with her mental state and she shrinks further inside herself and away from friends, family, and teachers. The darkening circles under her eyes and her increasingly hunched stance make for an even more raw and visceral reading experience, allowing us to more easily imagine ourselves in her shoes and feel her hurt as much as a bystander could.

In essence, I think that Speak: The Graphic Novel breathes new life into a story that is more relevant and important now than ever before. I am so thankful that Halse Anderson rereleased her original work in this fresh and interesting way with the help of Carroll, and I'd highly recommend this book to readers young and old as we continue the conversations held within its pages.

Do you have a novel, graphic or otherwise, that has really spoken to you with its handling of important issues? I'd love to hear about it in the comments or on social media!

Happy reading to all, and to all a good night (that's how the quote goes, right?),

K. Hill