Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 384p. 9780374300289
Sarah: So I read the original novel by Laurie Halse Anderson right after it came out, which I hadn’t realized was published so long ago.
Gene: (Did we just lose power in your apartment? I think we did.)
S: (You’re on battery though. We can do this in total blackout.)
G: I read the original about 2001. It was a huge novel.
S: A big deal. To some extent it reminded me…on Last Week Tonight there was something about the Me, Too movement, and how this is great, but at the same time there have been these movements over and over again over the past decades, and things don’t always change. That’s the first thing it reminded me of: Oh, yeah, we were all going to do things differently back in 2001 and then that didn’t necessarily happen. I want to put more pressure on people — How are we going to change this? How are we going to stop the silence?
G: This book is about the aftermath of a sexual assault, and it’s not really clear until the end if you’re a young teen, but if you’re an adult it’s super obvious early on when she’s not talking about the big secret.
S: Yeah. And that’s what the novel was like, too.
G: I remember the thing about the novel, which was out back when we both started as Teen Services Librarians, was that it was powerful and serious about a serious thing and told in a way that hadn’t been done before. It was the leading edge of what teen fiction was and could do.
S: Before, if sexual assault was mentioned in a book, it was in a “problem novel.” This was not a problem novel. This was a straight up great book that didn’t back down and talked about how much this had hurt her and how much she couldn’t speak and how much people weren’t going to believe her.
G: I was really worried, as I always am by graphic novel adaptations. Most of them are terrible even if they’re based on books I loved, or maybe especially since they’re based on books I loved. There’s always a thing about pacing where a novel can relax more than a graphic novel can, because it’s so much work to convert a book into a graphic novel, it takes a lot of room, maybe more pages than are easily drawn or printed or whatever. And so some graphic novel adaptations just try to cram as much as possible onto every page, and they don’t have the same pace, and it feels like craft goes out the window.
S: And there are things you can’t hide in a visual format.
G: I don’t think this book tries to “hide” what happened as much as the novel. It’s pretty obvious what happened…
S: It’s a book that was written 17 years later, so this was written post-Speak, and the original novel did change things.
G: Absolutely. And I just want to say Emily Carroll is great. Into the Woods is fantastic.
S: I saw it was her and I was like, This is going to be fine!
G: Black and white art was a beautiful choice. I love the way this book looks, the pacing, everything about it. Carroll, even when she puts a lot on a single page, she makes you sit with it somehow, which is what the book was like — you’re with this girl in a terrible…well, it’s not a moment, but the extended aftermath.
In the beginning when she feels alienated from everyone in school, when she’s sitting and looking at everyone else, and thinking about how awful she is, and about how they get to misbehave and still feel clean, and then some girl leans in and says, Oh you’re the one who called the cops on that party and got everyone busted. And then she’s alone in the stands in a spotlight, and everyone else is grayed out around her. It’s beautiful.
S: Perfect. I think it doesn’t start until partway through, but the rabbit imagery, and then they start popping up as voices in her head: You need to be scared right now! You’re in danger right now! You need to get away right now! That’s the panic she feels after this happened to her. She feels like prey, like she’s helpless. And then the rabbits become less afraid as she gains strength. I think the rabbits tell her horrible fake friend to fuck off.
G: I don’t remember those rabbits from the novel itself.
S: I don’t either.
G: But it’s amazing how much a graphic novel brings some imagery to the front because you can see it even if it doesn’t resonate with you. It makes you remember it.
There are moments for me that remind me of some of the best Hellblazer comics, where she’s looking in the mirror and her face is melting off. She’s looking in the mirror like it’s fogged over, and then it’s like the steam condenses over it like she has no face, which is exactly how she sees herself: no mouth, no eyes.
S: It’s effective.
G: And the drawings are able to make the boy look demonic when needed. It puts us right into her mind.
S: Everyone else sees him as this clean cut jock guy. And then when he starts to stalk her, he becomes this thing that looks like a demon, an animal.
G: When he’s dating her “friend,” she’s trying to figure out who to tell.
S: You finally see the events of that night. While she’s having fun at the party, you as the reader can see him lock onto her drinking a little too much, and not having friends around her. He follows her to a place no one can hear her scream. She is not seeing that.
G: And it’s not too graphic at that moment. I remember the book handled it in much the same way. But I still think people are going to start insisting this needs to be banned, and maybe the original, too. Maybe because it’s black and white censors won’t look at it quite as carefully.
S: I know! It can be hard to get across to people, especially those who enjoy banning things, that the rape isn’t about sex. It’s about violence, control. That really came across on the page. And I think as Anderson says in the introduction, so much of the character’s recovery is about art that it’s a great fit: being able to see Melinda trying to express herself.