On page 80 of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, the narrator and protagonist, Melinda, says one sentence that seems to be integral to the story: “How could I say no?”

One of the main ideas of the book is that Melinda has gone through some ordeal that the rest of the school blames her for, and she has trouble expressing herself, both about what she went through and about things in general. Melinda doesn’t speak often, and when she does, it doesn’t seem as if she is heard, or what she says isn’t actually what she feels. Melinda’s words don’t seem to have much power for her.

It is revealed to the reader as the book progresses that Melinda was at a party during the summer and was sexually assaulted by a classmate. She called the cops and when they showed up, the party was broken up and several people were arrested. Because of that, most of Melinda’s classmates hate her. The center of Melinda’s assault was the fact that she was unable to say no. Even though she said it, her “no” was not respected, and she was violated. Her choice was taken away from her, and she felt helpless and unheard and forgotten because of it. 

The idea that Melinda is unable to say no is repeated throughout the book. She’s recruited to teach a basketball player to throw, and she says that she can’t say no, so she just won’t show up. She’s tracked through the cafeteria by a teacher asking if she has an assignment, and rather than say that no, she doesn’t, she evades him. She can’t say no to Heather’s requests for help with projects the Marthas give her, over and over again. When she sees It in the parking lot of the doughnut shop and he asks her if she wants a bite, Melinda is unable to say no, which is obviously exactly what she wants to say. Instead she runs.

The inability to say no speaks to a feeling of a lack of power. Because Melinda’s no was unheeded on the night of the party, she feels as if she doesn’t have the power to say no anymore. This idea can be very relatable to young adult readers. Pre-teens and teens often feel as if their voice isn’t heard, as if their lives are out of their control, especially in high school. Add to that a trauma and you find yourself with a teenager that feel as if she has lost power completely. A young adult reader can sympathize with the feeling of a loss of power, and the trauma that Melinda suffered, both at the party and the aftermath that she was faced with every day at school, makes her an interesting, dynamic character that young adult readers can relate to and learn from.