Book Reviews: YA Fiction




Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. 1999. New York. Farrar Straus Giroux.


Melinda Sordino enters the halls of Merryweather High School on the first day of 9th grade, and is herded into the auditorium. Looking around her, she identifies the usual cliques and knows that she will not fit into any of them. She has a secret. A secret that will keep her mouth closed all year. This candid and insightful novel, written from the point of view of an outcast will speak to young adults as they grapple with who they are, how their choices shape them, and how to overcome bad experiences.

Critical Analysis:

Laurie Halse Anderson received the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature for this insightful book. Melinda Sordino tells her story through personal thoughts and introspection about life in ninth grade. The author conveys the fact that her character’s personality has undergone a drastic change due to an unfortunate event, but only hints at what caused the change. Using symptoms that teens will easily recognize such as nail-biting, lip chewing, and a decline in grooming habits, Ms. Anderson depicts a girl retreating into her own little world where help will not be found. “I am an Outcast.” Melinda looks for a place to fit in on her first day in the auditorium, and realizes how alone she is, “…a wounded zebra in a National Geographic Special, looking for someone, anyone, to sit next to.”

This story is primarily told via Melinda’s thoughts, although there are breaks when she speaks directly to the reader. When she interacts with others, the speaker is identified followed by a colon; and then her response is recorded on a separate line. This halting way of presenting the dialog is effective in demonstrating how difficult Melinda finds talking:

“Mr. Neck: We meet again”

“Me:         .”

The reader knows that Melinda is a very intuitive and intelligent girl who simply can’t cope with life at the moment. She retreats into an abandoned janitor’s closet, begins skipping classes, spends a lot of time in study hall, and hangs out after school in the only place she feels safe—the art room. “I need a new friend. I need a friend, period. Not a true friend, nothing close or share clothes or sleepover giggle giggle yak yak. Just a pseudo-friend, a disposable friend. Friend as an accessory. Just so I don’t feel and look so stupid.”

The novel is divided into four marking periods with subtitles that compartmentalize bits and pieces of the year. At the end of each grading period section, Melinda shares her report card, for example: Plays Nice –B; Social Studies –C; Clothes –C; Art –A. The list goes on including real classes and daily activities like lunch and interactions with those around her. This compartmentalizing of the year works well to convey the way Melinda sees her life.

This book will instill empathy in the reader as she hopes that Melinda will be alright. There is comedic relief placed sparingly throughout providing glimpses into the Melinda that used to be. Recommend this book to any teen that is struggling with finding her place in society, or wants to help a friend who is.


Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature Honor Book
1999 National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature.
1999 National Book Award Finalist
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Booklist Editors’ Choice


“…The plot is gripping and the characters are powerfully drawn, but it is its raw and unvarnished look at the dynamics of the high school experience that makes this a novel that will be hard for readers to forget.”  Kirkus Book Review

“In a stunning first novel, Anderson uses keen observations and vivid imagery to pull readers into the head of an isolated teenager. Divided into the four marking periods of an academic year, the novel, narrated by Melinda Sordino, begins on her first day as a high school freshman. No one will sit with Melinda on the bus. At school, students call her names and harass her; her best friends from junior high scatter to different cliques and abandon her. Yet Anderson infuses the narrative with a wit that sustains the heroine through her pain and holds readers’ empathy.” Publishers Weekly


Language Arts classes will find this style of writing instructive when doing a unit on creative writing.  Normal mechanics have not been followed, yet the novel comes to life, and keeps the reader turning the pages.

Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in the form and flow of the writing style, as well as the difficult content and how it is beautifully and tastefully dealt with.

Similar Read:

Carleson, Melody. Anything but Normal. 2010. Revell.