Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 young adult novel, Speak, introduced readers to Melinda, a young girl who was raped the summer before she started high school. It’s a book that helped to shape the way many readers think and talk about sexual assault. In the years since, Anderson has remained a passionate advocate for survivors. Now she’s partnered with Emily Carroll (Through the Woods) to bring Melinda’s story to a new generation of readers. Speak: The Graphic Novel is a stunning adaptation of a story that demands to be shared. Here, Anderson discusses why Carroll is the perfect illustrator for the novel, the ways it was updated, and why Speak is more important than ever today.
Bookish: You’ve been traveling around the country for years sharing Speak with young readers. Have you seen the conversation around the book change since it was first published?
Laurie Halse Anderson: The growing number of survivors of sexual violence willing to share their stories is the biggest change. It is balanced, sadly, by the increase in number of teens who consider violence during sex normal because they learned about sex from internet porn. There is still profound ignorance about the laws that deal with sexual violence, and the emotional impact it has on victims. We have miles to go.
Bookish: The last time we spoke, you said that if you had the chance you’d edit Speak. In writing the script for the graphic novel, did you make any changes?
LHA: I tweaked a few things, updating the story to account for technology and compressing a couple of scenes that duplicated the same structural beat. It was a relief to be able to do both!
Bookish: You had a hand in choosing Emily Carroll as your illustrator. What originally drew you to Emily and her work?
LHA: Emily can convey darkness, tension, and depression like few other artists today. She understands the horror that can infect adolescence, and the crippling despair that trauma can breed. She brings horror to life and that’s what I wanted in the book.
Bookish: Speak is a personal story for you, for many reasons. What was it like to share it with Emily and work to create a new version of it?
LHA: I was a bit nervous at first, but when I saw the early sketches, I knew everything was going to be fine. Together, we’ve created a chorus of artful storytelling which demands to be heard.
Bookish: I loved the illustration on page 335, where Melinda sees that other students believe what she wrote on the bathroom wall, and she realizes she isn’t alone. Did you have a favorite panel or page?
LHA: There are too many to name. To watch me read this book is to watch a 13-year-old fall in love with art all over again.
Bookish: For so long, women were afraid or discouraged from speaking about sexual assault. But that’s finally changing. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, this feels like a particularly poignant moment for Speak to be re-released. How do you see it fitting into the current discussions about consent, assault, and power?
LHA: Sexual violence victims are being encouraged—for the first freaking time—to speak up and tell their stories. (Cue the backlash…) This makes it easier for everyone to start talking about the topic, and to have overdue conversations about how to teach children and teens about consent, power dynamics, and all of the other long-silenced topics surrounding sexual violence. We must remember to welcome everyone into the conversation; people in marginalized communities have been further marginalized and harmed by not getting their seat at the table for these conversations.
Speak has been opening hearts and minds to the realities of sexual violence for nearly twenty years. I hope the graphic novel version will carry that legacy forward and help the next generation of readers find their voices.
Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know needs help or support in dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-4673) or chat with them online.
Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has sold nearly five million copies. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Chains also made the Carnegie Medal shortlist in the United Kingdom. Her most recent YA novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory, was longlisted for the National Book Award.