THE FIRST TEN LIES THEY TELL YOU IN HIGH SCHOOL
- We are here to help you.
- You will have enough time to get to your class before the bell rings.
- The dress code will be enforced.
- No smoking is allowed on school grounds.
- Our football team will win the championship this year.
- We expect more of you here.
- Guidance counselors are always available to listen.
- Your schedule was created with your needs in mind.
- Your locker combination is private.
- These will be the years you look back on fondly.
This passage probably did not just blow your mind. It would fit in well with any number of novels published in the last few years, when sardonic and unsentimental takes on the high school experience have become the norm. So it’s rather difficult to convey to someone who came of age in the current literary landscape what it was like to pick up Speak as a high school sophomore 15 years ago. (Allow me to step away for a moment for the obligatory “Holy shit I’m getting old” crisis.)
Though Wikipedia tells me that YA can trace its roots back to the 1920s, that wasn’t my experience of the library. The elementary school library was roughly sectioned by age: a big open area for the kiddie books, then a section of what would now be considered middle grade, with the Grown Up books arranged by Dewey Decimal along the back wall. Junior high and high school shrank the kiddie sections and expanded the reference, but it was still roughly the same. And the public library didn’t even bother with the age designations, just lumped it all in the kids’ room. Sure, books with young protagonists like The Bell Jar or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings were there, but they were Dewey Decimaled or hidden among the adult fiction (or, as it was always referred to then, “fiction”). I was a precocious and voracious reader, but literature spoke to me as a mini-adult, not as a teenager. Books that featured kids my own age were either fantasies, set in such different times that they might as well have been fantasies, or saccharine and twee series like Sweet Valley High and The Baby-sitters Club that this disaffected suburban loner could barely stomach.
Then my best friend Felicia, frequently the bibliophile Virgil to my Dante, told me about Speak. “No really, you have to read this,” she said.
So I did.
And then I turned around immediately and did it again.
Seriously, I’m not sure I can adequately express how un-fucking-precedented this was to me. I mean, I identified with the heroines of my girl-power fantasy novels, but my day-to-day problems rarely involved crossing the high seas or fulfilling prophecies. No one wrote novels about disaffected suburban loners. Yet here she was: barely tolerating pep rallies, looking for places to hide from the world, bewildering her unhappy parents, bouncing off of cliques that had no place for her. I had not shared Melinda’s trauma, but there on the page was a girl whose life and observations looked like mine.
It was a goddamn revelation.
Recently in Barnes and Noble, I saw Speak on a table labeled “What Teens Are Reading.” It was a display amid several shelves all labeled Teen, shelves at the front of the store that prominently preempt the good old “fiction”. Make no mistake, kids, this kind of geologic shift is a revolution, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
The fact that I still remember this experience so vividly all these years later is a testament to why representation matters, and why I am a huge supporter of diverse books even as a hetero brunette white girl. Sure, I didn’t have any problem finding characters who looked like me, but I had never before encountered a character who acted like me, who thought like me. Speak gave me a message for the first time that went counter to everything that everyone had ever told me:
You are not abnormal.
You are broken, but not beyond repair.
You will survive this.
You are not alone.
Everyone deserves to hear that message. Everyone deserves to have their story told.
Speak was and is a capital-I Important Book, but I’m glad it’s no longer a unique one. The increasing breadth, depth, and complexity of the YA landscape is bringing us, slowly but surely, toward the day where a kid reading their own voice reflected back to them is a matter of course and not a life-changing event.