a way to modulate my feelings

and cope with the discomfort,

like telling jokes at a funeral, not appropriate, but less damaging than gin too many grown-ups tell kids to follow their dreams

like that’s going to get them somewhere Auntie Laurie says follow your nightmares instead cuz when you figure out what’s eating you alive you can slay it

Speak, Draft One, Page One

    (from my journal)


I’m looking for the key to open the door

to this story

an overheard motel room conversation

if they would just turn down the television I could hear the words clearly, maybe find the magic formula.

No outline. Not this time, just a character on a page, the stage


and alone

with her fear,

heart open,


Melinda, age 14.

Trapped in a year with no calendar pages, just day after day of 14,

cuz the hands of the clock in biology class are frozen at five till three.



It is my first morning of high school.


have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.

(opening lines of Speak) I began high school (my fourth school in four years)

with six polyester skirts, not just one, all sewn by my grandmother, who loved me so much

she didn’t want me to start the new school in hand-me-downs, cuz the rich kids would laugh she sewed me six skirts

the colors of autumn

so I could wear a brown turtleneck with all of them. I armored myself that first day

(two weeks after the boy raped me) with incantations grandmaternal; love-sewn skirt, unheard prayers, a penny in each loafer, I walked to the bus stop then to the gallows

my first day of ninth grade had no assembly no “First Ten Lies They Tell You in High School”

no showdown with Mr. Neck Speak is a novel

rooted in facts, to be sure, but a story bred with its own DNA an invasive species growing out of a stump of a tree hit by lightning growing from the girl who survived the overlap of my stories and my life is a garden courtyard, sky-strung with stars and scars where planets were torn from their orbits

the courtyard where that stump grows is surrounded by stone walls three miles high, carved

with thousands of locked doors and secrets that bloom open in the moonlight


They said if Speak sold a couple thousand copies we’d be lucky, cuz teenagers didn’t like to read I had no expectations or hopes I never thought it would be published at all one day a man called me to tell me I was a finalist

for the National Book Award confused, I called my editor who explained that I needed to buy a dress a fancy one, cuz this was a seriously big deal country mouse in New York City I scurried to events, anxious, unsure tried to blend into the wallpaper my fellow finalists more comfortable with the shiny new world that required dresses or suits, riding in cabs instead of on the subway student journalists gathered to interview us, the Fab Five Finalists, onstage: Walter Dean Myers, Monster Louise Erdrich, The Birchbark House Kimberly Willis Holt, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Polly Horvath, The Trolls and me,

the spotlights in our eyes made it hard to see our interrogators, but the questions were thoughtful.

When it was over the kids filed out, and we headed for the door

toward lunch at a posh restaurant on someone else’s dime

but Walter

Walter was deep in conversation with one of the students,

talking books and Harlem

and other important things

I waited by the door for him Walter was the first established author I’d met he welcomed me into the world of books for kids with joy, wisdom, and grace, he taught me everything I know about my responsibility to my readers, starting that day cuz he didn’t go to lunch at all, he waved us off that young man was filled with questions and Walter had some answers and questions of his own

he made the time for a reader because integrity required it that’s what we’re called to do the award dinner was mad stressful, the chairman of my publisher’s company sat at my table he’d flown in from Germany for the event and didn’t look happy about it that made two of us; my dress itched, my shoes pinched

nervous-thirsty, I drank gallons of water constantly racing to the bathroom to pee Walter sat at the table next to mine throughout the evening, he’d turn and tell me a joke

point out how glamorous events like this had nothing to do with the sweat of writing,

but the desserts were good

when the time came, we enjoyed Oprah Winfrey’s speech

Steve Martin pronounced my name right, that was impressive,

then the chair of the Young People’s Literature jury approached the podium

she talked about how much kids love to read, how they found books through family, friends, librarians,

the people who would read aloud to them. . . .

Walter looked at me and arched an eyebrow he and I wrote for the kids who didn’t have those people children with scars

inside and out, kids whose childhoods disappeared in the rearview mirror a long time ago

he leaned forward and whispered, “We’re screwed”

Laurie Halse Anderso's Books