In 1999, Laurie Halse Anderson published Speak, her debut novel and a masterpiece of YA literature that not only dealt with a teenage girl’s trauma in aftermath of rape, but also the other realities of being a teenager, mundane, silly, and tragic. Anderson’s beautiful language and honest teenage voice made this book a huge hit, and its content made it a target for book banning. Since a major theme and the plot of the book involves art, it was an obvious choice for a graphic novel adaptation.
Speak: The Graphic Novel distills Anderson’s writing down, keeping the story essentials and the beauty of her writing and using her evocative descriptive passages to create the art. Canadian cartoonist Emily Carroll, an Eisner-winning webcomic artist, uses a mix of realism, comics, and horror to bring Melinda’s world to life. Since Melinda can’t bring herself to talk about what happened to her, this translates into difficulty speaking to almost everyone. So much of the book is Melinda’s thoughts and impressions, and Carroll does an incredible job translating this to the page. Choosing black and white over color emphasizes the stark and bleak world Melinda is living in physically and emotionally.
One thing the graphic novel does is use the visual format to diversify the world of the book. Race isn’t really described in the book, but here many of the main characters are people of color, and the teachers and student body are also diverse. In a spread about Valentine’s Day, a lesbian couple is shown exchanging valentines in the hallway. It’s a nice addition to the world of the book.
Because the graphic novel has to cut down from the book, there are certain things that have to be left out. Melinda’s initial and persistent form of self-harm, biting her lips til they bleed, is shown but not really described to the extent of how serious it is. But mostly these are small things and probably only something a recent reader of the book would notice.
Speak is one of my all-time favorite books, even through I came to it as an adult, and it spoke to me deeply. While this graphic novel can’t capture the whole book, it is a fantastic version of the work with its own unique strengths and depths. Carroll’s art is beautiful and devastating, and it’s made me want to explore more of her work.