You’re going to notice that I’m really into opening lines.  There are two reasons for that.  First, when someone’s browsing a book in a bookstore, that’s the one sentence that isn’t on the back cover that they’re most likely to read.  Second, when an author sends a sample of writing to an agent or publisher, this is the sentence that should hook ’em.  The first (two) lines of SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson is:

It is my first morning of high school.  I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomach ache.

Immediately, I know four things about the main character:

1.  She’s female

2. She’s about to enter an unfamiliar environment.

3. She’s having a strong, negative response to the situation.

4. She insecure about her physical appearance.

And from this very first line, in my head I’ve constructed the image of a typical girl.  She’s someone you might just run into anywhere.

Since I read Young Adult fantasy a lot, I’m used to books with zany characters.  And, hey–I love me some off-the-wall people with odd little quirks and unusual names.  The main character in SPEAK Melinda Sordino–in fact none of the characters in SPEAK–are like that at all.

The fascinating thing about Melinda the very insightful way she views the world.  She’s an isolated character so most of the book is her internal thought rather than external interaction.  I was shocked at how compelling this can be. And if we want to talk about a textbook example of a character arc, this is it.  At the beginning of the book Melinda is suffering from a self-imposed muteness and by the end of the book, she’s dealt with and overcome the issue that caused this character trait.  Beautiful and moving stuff.

There are a few important secondary characters.  The first is Heather from Ohio, a new student who starts school as out-of-place as Melinda.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition.  Melinda deals with her pariah state by withdrawing into herself.  Heather deals with it by trying to be all things to all people.  She joins social groups.  She buys all the right clothes and shoes.  And yet, Heather ends up being lower on the social pecking order than even Melinda by the end of the book.  You understand why, because even as the reader you don’t really like her.  There a lesson here and it isn’t preachy: you can’t force people to like you.

Another important character is Melinda’s art teacher, Mr. Freeman.  Here’s the interesting thing about the adult characters in this book: not all of them get names. Melinda sometimes thinks of them in terms of their most prominent characteristic like the social studies teacher “Mr. Neck” or the English teacher “Hairwoman”. Mr. Freeman gets a name because he stands out to Melinda.  He takes an interest in her.  You see him frustrated by the constraints of the educational system but intent to bring out the best in his students.

There are a few other more minor characters.  David Petrakis is the kid who’s smarter than most of his teachers and insists that he can change the things he doesn’t feel are fair.   By the end of the book, there’s a hint that a small romance could develop between him and Melinda.  Rachel is Melinda’s ex-friend who flits from social group to social group, accepted by most but fitting with none.  She hates Melinda because it’s the popular opinion.  Ivy is another ex-friend and maybe the only minor character in the book with enough self-confidence to follow her own inner voice.  You like her, even though you don’t get a whole lot about her.

Next time I’ll tackle the plot of SPEAK.  Doing this without spoilers could be a trick, so bear with me, but honestly if you don’t know this book, it’s a really awesome experience to read it without knowing book’s big reveal.

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