Speak Is A Classic YA Novel. 20 Years Later Comes The Searingly Personal Followup.

In 1999, Laurie Halse Anderson was a first-time novelist whose editor warned her not to expect much from sales of her debut, Speak. But, thanks to word of mouth, the book caught fire among readers and quickly became a bestseller and a National Book Award finalist. Speak, a nonlinear novel about a 14-year-old high school freshman who retreats into herself following a rape, was talking to survivors long before the current, very public reckoning about sexual misconduct.
In the years after Speak’s publication, Anderson became a superstar in the world of children’s publishing. For the first time, she’s revisiting the book that started it all. Shout, out March 12, is an incandescent, non-fiction follow-up to Speak – but it’s difficult to characterize. Is it a memoir about a dysfunctional childhood? Is it a lyrical response to the #MeToo movement? Is it about the birth of an artist, and her responsibility to the people affected by her work?
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Here’s what it definitely is: An absolutely essential read for teenagers and the people who know them. In a series of prose poems, Anderson touches on topics ranging from personal to broad, interweaving memoir with a bit of sex-ed and cultural commentary. In these incendiary pages, Anderson casts herself the wise adult figure who will do what so many adults won’t: Tell the truth, but with kindness.
We spoke to Anderson about Shout — about why now is the time for shouting our stories, not just speaking them.
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Refinery29: Congratulations on Speak turning 20. What prompted you to tell your own story this time in Shout?
Laurie Halse Anderson: “Every once in a while, everything lines up. You know how people line up dominos? Imagine those are matches. I think all of those matches, for me, was represented by an interaction I had with a reader who had been attacked sexually. In October of 2017, as #MeToo and the backlash were fighting the public marketplace, someone struck that first match of the last 20 years. My rage was incandescent. And that’s when I started writing these poems.”
Speak is partially inspired by a sexual assault you experienced as a 13-year-old. What was revisiting that – and writing it down— like?
“I don't think a day has gone by since the attack where I haven’t thought about it. It’s always there. In some ways, the writing of the third part of Shout, which I look at the culture of manhood and toxic masculinity in my high school, helped me forgive [my rapist] a little bit. He was a lost kid in a world that didn't see him either. I am never not going wish he didn’t hurt me, but he had a lot of pain too. Looking back and reviewing my entire high school experience also helped me do the last bit of forgiving of myself. Because I was really young. When you’re 13, you think you can handle it. You think you know everything. Boy, I was wrong. I don't handle it well.”
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The book has two major sections — your childhood and formation as a writer, then interactions with your legions of fans and broader remarks about sexuality. Did you write in order?
“The first poems I wrote were the rage poems. I smudged the details in the really poignant stories to protect the privacy of folks. And then I started to think about my parents. When families have members struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, that’s a family issue – that never just one person’s issue. It plays out along the family lines generationally. It’s so hard to understand as a teenager because you don’t have the life experience to see it yet. I wanted to write about that.”

"We have to recognize that teaching your kids about consent and healthy sexuality is every bit as important as teaching them how to cross the road or how to drive a car.”

Laurie Halse Anderson
So much of Shout is about the damage that silence can do. Whether it’s silence about sex, or the silence of family histories. Throughout the book, there are adults who keep things from kids to “protect” them.
“I am going to be really clear about this. Adults that make those decisions to protect children are not making those decisions to actually protect children. They’re making the decision to protect themselves from having to look awkward, or having to admit that they don’t have all the answers. They don’t know how to talk about this. The truth is, we’ve never had a generation of parents who know how to talk about human sexuality with their kids.
“I tell parents: ‘Imagine if we treated the teaching of driving or how to cross the road safely how we treat the teaching of sex. In terms of our responsibility to our kids, no child would survive.’ We have to recognize that teaching your kids about consent and healthy sexuality is every bit as important as teaching them how to cross the road or how to drive a car.”
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Was that something that you thought a lot about when you were raising your kids?
“Oh god, yeah. I’ve always been, sometimes to my children’s horror, thoroughly blunt about sex and their bodies. Telling my daughters not only do you have to give ongoing, enthusiastic consent every time you have a sexual encounter, but you better make sure that your partner pleases you, too. That’s part of the deal. It goes both ways. They both blushed a little bit at that one but I think they heard me.”
Adults are a major part of your book. There are the adults that swoop in like guardian angels and they saw you. They got you to join a sport, or taught you how to read. Then there are the adults who did quite the opposite. How can adults be good allies to kids?
“The most important thing is to smile. People like to be so judgey about teenagers. You can hear it. The derision is maddening. They criticize their music styles or their clothing styles or the slang, or ‘They’re always on their screens.’ You know what? You’re talking to a newly forming human. You start with a smile and learn their name and respect them enough to call them with love by their name.
“There’s a statement that I heard a few years ago from an educator that just reverberates in my head daily: When you’re dealing with children and teenagers, you have to see their behavior as a form of communication. Their behavior is their language. So when you have a kid like I was in 9th grade, totally a mess, most teachers were incredibly judgmental of me not doing homework or showing up to class high. But there were a couple of teachers who were more mature, or who had dealt with their own stuff so they could be more loving — and they saw me. They saw my pain. When you are seen by another human being and recognized, that’s the difference between kids who can heal and grow and kids who are just abandoned in the wasteland.”
In the second half of the book, you catalogue your encounters with fans. What has your own journey been like when it comes to responding to people?
“It’s always felt like such a gift and honor when someone shares their story with me, because I know how long it takes for some people to be able to trust someone enough to share their story. People will often couch it and say, ‘I’m sure you’ve heard this before.’ But I’ve never heard it from that person. I really try to stay present for that person and that interaction. That’s why my signing lines move a little slowly. That's how it’s going to be. I’m not changing that.”
Do you feel hopeful about the future?
"I’m incredibly hopeful. I’ve never been this hopeful. That’s the thing about confusing and dark political times. First of all, you know who you can trust right away. In the darkness you recognize that we’re all called to be part of the light. We have a responsibility."
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