Book Review: Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Emily Carroll

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Review 2.8

“Speak up for yourself-we want to know what you have to say.” 

From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless–an outcast–because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. Through her work on an art project, she is finally able to face what really happened that night: She was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. [Source]

Apparently I live under a rock, because I had never heard of Laurie Halse Anderon’s award winning 1999 novel, Speak. It only came to my attention when I learned that Emily Carroll had done the illustrations for the graphic novel edition of the book, which was released last year. Carroll wrote and illustrated the fantastically creepy Into the Woods, which was among the favorite books that I read last year. I immediately ordered a copy from my library and brought it home.

It sat on my desk for six weeks.

I could never bring myself to actually begin reading Speak. I knew it was going to be one of those books that left me feeling wrung out and exhausted, and I just couldn’t commit myself. A few days before the book had to be returned to the library, I finally decided to make myself a giant cup of hot chocolate, top it off with a dash of brandy, and curl up on my couch to finish the book.

I’m so glad I did.

I haven’t read the original source material, but Anderson’s writing style adapts itself perfectly to the graphic novel format. Her narrative has a lyrical, almost poetic quality; it bounces from subject to subject in a continual train of thought that carries us into Melinda’s mind. The mind of the average high school girl is a swirling maze of pressure and anxiety: pressure to fit in, to get good grades, to be popular to have boys like you, pressure from parents, from peers, from boys. Melinda, who is dealing with more anxiety and pressure than any ninth grader should ever have to experience, is teetering on the knife’s edge between crippling depression and debilitating stress. Her experiences are as tragic as they are tragically ordinary, and Melinda’s journey to find her voice is a powerful one.

Emily Carroll is a tremendously talented artist, and her illustrations heighten and define Melinda’s experiences in so many ways. Notice the way Melinda is nearly always depicted with her hair covering part of her face as she seeks to hide from staring eyes. Or how certain characters are drawn with horribly exaggerated features. Carroll has a tendency towards the macabre that I love, and it suits the dark material presented in Speak.

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I put off reading this book because I thought it was going to leave me feeling bitter and upset. Instead, I found Speak to be empowering. As Melinda journeys out of the darkness and finds her voice, there were a series of small victories. A new friend. A helping hand. A sympathetic teacher. Small reminders that a person is never really alone. I’ll take this as a reminder that the most difficult stories to read are often the most important to tell.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Speak: The Graphic Novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert (2014)

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Review 2.3

Theo is better now.

She’s eating again, dating guys who are almost appropriate, and well on her way to becoming an elite ballet dancer. But when her oldest friend, Donovan, returns home after spending four long years with his kidnapper, Theo starts reliving memories about his abduction—and his abductor.

Donovan isn’t talking about what happened, and even though Theo knows she didn’t do anything wrong, telling the truth would put everything she’s been living for at risk. But keeping quiet might be worse. [Source]

*Warning: This Review Contains Mild Spoilers*

Theo is having a rough year. She’s traveling into Chicago three times a week for ballet rehearsal, with the auditions for professional companies looming ever closer. She’s haunted by the ghosts of her eating disorder and her time spent in a rehabilitation clinic. Her former best friend has just been found after being abducted four years ago, and it turns out his abductor is her ex-boyfriend

If Pointe had chosen any one of those subjects and focused its plot solely on Theo overcoming that obstacle, this novel might have felt less scattered. Instead, Theo’s life is a tragedy gumbo, with a new secret or disaster looming on every horizon. No wonder she’s falling apart; I felt my blood pressure going up just reading about it.

It was disappointing that a book entitled Pointe seemed to focus so little on ballet. Author Brandy Colbert obviously did quite a bit of research into the technical aspects of the dance, but the emotional power of ballet is often lost. Professional dance demands a level of passion and dedication that a very, very talented few possess, and Colbert does not adequately convey Theo’s love for ballet. She claims to want to be a professional ballerina, and yet she smokes cigarettes and marijuana as well as regularly drinking alcohol. More importantly, she takes no happiness in it.

One thing that I could appreciate in Pointe is the realistic and modern approach to teenagers and high school life. It’s tricky for adults to write about juveniles; too often we either trivialize or hyperbolize their struggles. While Colbert does tend towards the dramatic, she does so in a way that feels authentic more often than not. I could feel Theo’s exhaustion, that feeling of utter emptiness that can accompany depression. The dialogue of the various high schooler’s is also natural and unforced, which again is easier said than done.

I won’t say much about the abduction storyline except that its inclusion in the main synopsis is a red herring. I think the publishers wanted to keep the true focus of their novel under-wraps, so they pitched it as a mystery/kidnapping story when in reality the themes are much darker in nature.

This novel was too much of a downer for me. No life, no matter how tragic, is without it’s tiny moments of joy;  but that’s how Pointe often felt. I sympathized strongly with Theo as she battled her various demons, but it all just became too much.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Pointe here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

*This novel may be triggering to survivors of rape, kidnap, eating disorders, or sexual abuse*

Happy reading everyone!