Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Recent Reading

During each of my English 4 classes, I require my students to read silently for 15 minutes. They may read whatever book they choose, and they are only graded on participation. The best part of this assignment is that I get to read for 15 minutes of each class period. (Despite the benefits to them, I'm much more concerned with the benefits to me. I'm selfish like that.) The first book that I read for silent reading this year was Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Speak is a young adult literature novel that I should have read for my children's literature course this summer, but I never found the time. Valerie, however, did read it and loved it, so I decided that I would read it despite my antipathy for ya lit. The novel is narrated by Melinda, who spends her freshman year hardly being spoken to or speaking to anyone. She has a secret, but she can't bring herself to tell even her old friends why she called the police to an end of summer party. Instead, her silence becomes a wall between her and just about everyone she knows; her silence is also armor against the angry reactions of other students. Melinda's (Anderson's) observations about high school and teachers are so accurate and funny and sad. I really liked this book more than I ever thought I would.

I love this vignette, Hall of Mirrors, detailing Melinda's search for a new self.

"I scurry out to the three-way mirror. With an extra-large sweatshirt over the top, you can hardly tell that they are Effert's jeans. Still no Mom. I adjust the mirror so I can see reflections of reflections, miles and miles of me and my new jeans. I hook my hair behind my ears. I should have washed it. My face is dirty. I lean into the mirror. Eyes after eyes after eyes stare back at me. Am I in there somewhere? A thousand eyes blink. No makeup. Dark circles. I pull the side flaps of the mirror in closer, folding myself into the looking glass and blocking out the rest of the store.

My face becomes a Picasso sketch, my body slices into dissecting cubes. I saw a movie once where a woman was burned over eighty percent of her body and they had to wash all the dead skin off. They wrapped her in bandages, kept her drugged, and waited for skin grafts. They actually sewed her into a new skin.

I push my ragged mouth against the mirror. A thousand bleeding, crushed lips push back. What does it feel like to walk in a new skin? Was she completely sensitive like a baby, or numb, without nerve endings, just walking in a skin bag? I exhale and my mouth disappears in a fog. I feel like my skin has been burned off. I stumble from thornbush to thornbush--my mother and father who hate each other, Rachel who hates me, a school that gags on me like a hairball. And Heather.

I just need to hang on long enough for my new skin to graft. Mr. Freeman thinks I need to find my feelings. How can I not find them? They are chewing me alive like an infestation of thoughts, shame, mistakes. I squeeze my eyes shut. Jeans that fit, that's a good start. I have to stay away from the closet, go to all my classes. I will make myself normal. Forget the rest of it."

I wasn't expecting such powerful emotion from a ya lit novel. I also wasn't expecting poetry. I am always on the alert for poetic language in the prose that I read, and I really appreciate it when it is completely unexpected and doesn't seem to self-consciously poetic. In a vignette entitled Snow Day--School as Usual, Melinda offers this description of the snow: "Hawthorne wanted snow to symbolize cold, that's what I think. Cold and silence. Nothing quieter than snow. The sky screams to deliver it, a hundred banshees flying on the edge of the blizzard. But once the snow covers the ground, it hushes as still as my heart." What a great description of snow!

So far, one of my students has borrowed this book from me, and another is waiting for it. I hope it gets passed around the whole year. Speak is a book that deserves to be heard.

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