Orson Scott Card is without a doubt my favorite writer. The fact that he occasionally reads young adult books is a bonus for me. I've read several books solely because he recommended them--Everlost; Here there Be Dragons; Goose Girl; Mira, Mirror; Peter and the Starcatchers--but this time he is reviewing a book that I've loved for years. It seems he's finally gotten around to reading just about the perfect YA book ever published....Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.
My twelve-year-old had been raving about a book called Speak, but when she told me the plot -- "It's about a girl who is attacked by a guy at a party before her freshman year of high school" -- I winced and decided I'd probably never read it myself. Sounded like an after-school movie starring faded child stars.
But over the holidays, somebody got the film version of Speak as a Christmas gift, and I joined with the rest of the family in watching it.
This was writer-director Jessica Sharzer's first feature-length film, but you'd never know it -- she showed a deft hand at telling a story that jumps around in time. The film also deals very tastefully with a difficult subject. It's funny. It's moving.
And it has an amazing cast. Not that everybody's famous -- only a few of the actors are well known (Elizabeth Perkins, D.B. Sweeney, Steve Zahn) and none are "box office." But all the actors give outstanding, nuanced performances, especially the kids.
Melinda Sordino is wonderful as the silent girl whose school year has been wrecked by the fact that her phone call to the police inadvertently caused the whole party to be busted for underage drinking. But the other kids are good, too -- nobody plays a cliche or a "type."
Even the tiny parts are well performed. Leslie Lyles has been playing smallish character parts since 1987 -- but I bet you don't remember her. Yet this whole time, she's been capable of the kind of brilliantly nuanced performance she gives as "Hairwoman" -- the high school English teacher who hides from her students even as she stands in front of them lecturing.
I didn't see this film when it first aired (Showtime Networks is listed as its distributor), but it hasn't lost anything in the couple of years since it first came out. It remains a powerful, unforgettable movie, even if the small screen got it first.
Come to think of it, TV screens aren't necessarily "small" anymore. When you take into account the distance from the screen in the theater, I daresay the "small" screen I saw it on was subjectively larger than any screen I was likely to see it on in a movie theater!
Anyway, having fallen in love with the movie, I knew I'd have to read the book. My 12-year-old is so noble in spirit that she didn't say "I told you so." She loved the book so much she didn't care how long it took me to get around to reading it. Better late than never.
And guess what? Good as the movie is, the book really is better. It's arty in ways that usually annoy me, but in this case it totally works. There's not a thing in the book that I'd change. Everything that the movie altered was right -- for the movie; the way it was in the book was also right -- for the book.
Author Laurie Halse Anderson has achieved something unusual and fine with this novel. As a work of literary art and as a bit of practical moral instruction, I can't imagine how it could be better. It's so entertaining you don't realize you're being taught something important; and the experience is so powerful you can easily forget that it is, after all, just art.
Sadly, since most boys just won't read books about girls, few will read it. Yet I wish all boys could read it, or at least see the movie, because it might help a few lust-powered adolescent males realize that their desires and feelings aren't the only ones that matter. (Too bad that our society has decided to expose such young children to situations where sexual decisions are even possible.)
Meanwhile, I have added the book to my course on the Contemporary American Novel. Speak has already reached -- and changed significantly -- many thousands more people than most "literary" novels for adults. I'll take this one over pretentious drivel like Cold Mountain or The Corrections any day -- this shows contemporary American fiction at its very best.