Speak and YA vs. Fairy Tales

17Mar10

from Borders

Thinking about The Juniper Tree and about younger kidlit and comparing it with Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

YA literature attacks issues far more head-on than the younger literature. Think about, for instance, the way that The Juniper Tree took on issues of identity, emerging sexuality and parental love. These were certainly layered elegantly into the story, but the surface was “just a good story.” The more threatening elements were disguised enough so the child’s unconscious picked them up and used them, but on a conscious level they weren’t so threatening that he or she would stop listening. Speak, on the other hand, is a book about the sequellae of rape. It, too, has a lot going on under the surface, but the most threatening elements are right there to see. Yes, Anderson has done some things to keep us reading, but the central elements are there in the narrative.

Why do we keep reading?  If someone handed you this book and said, “Read this, it’s about rape,” wouldn’t you run screaming from the room? (I didn’t run screaming, but I avoided the book for years). But this isn’t a book “about rape,” it’s a book about a girl . . . and how she lives through a painful time in her life, and how she comes through it. It is about Melinda Sordino, and she is sad, she is smart, she is self-aware on some level, she is funny and bitter and all those many things that make her real.

An aside, from my mis-spent youth: a sordino is a mute for a violin . . . it may have other meanings, but I haven’t checked.

Other things make this book approachable despite the pain. First, we meet Melinda on the bus and we feel for her. She is an awkward child on her first day of High School and we know her, or we were her. We don’t realize until page 3 that something here is more deeply wrong than just insecurity and social awkwardness, but we’ve started to be in Melinda’s corner, and we want to see her through this. Eventually, we find that “she’s the girl who called the cops . . .,” but there are hints that it’s more than that. Melinda is dying to tell Rachel “. . . what really happened. . .,” and when her father chucks the ice cubes in the glass, turns up the TV and pours his booze, Melinda hears “Five dead in house fire! Young girl attacked!” We learn that she is estranged from her parents, who are so wrapped up in their own lives that they have no time, energy or inclination to include her in those lives. We learn that Melinda wants desperately to belong somewhere, but she’s certain that she doesn’t.

But we don’t learn about the rape until Melinda (and we readers, who are identifying with her) is ready to think about it again.

What makes Melinda ready? Why is Melinda able, when Andy tries to rape her again, to finally defend herself?

What makes this book so real and so effective are the ways Melinda grows through the book. The many small things she learns and accomplishes make her defending herself believable and inevitable.

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