A Beloved YA Classic's Transition to Graphic Novel Format

Author Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrator Emily Carroll describe the challenging yet richly rewarding experience of adapting Speak.

Burning with quiet rage, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak left an indelible mark on YA literature when it was published in 1999, winning a Printz Honor. Now a graphic novel, it’s no less potent. Fourteen-year-old Melinda is left reeling after an older boy, Andy, rapes her at a party over the summer. She withdraws, speaking only when necessary and flying under the radar of teachers, parents, and resentful fellow students who blame Melinda for getting the party shut down by police (in an unsuccessful attempt to report the crime, she called 911). The work has garnered legions of fans, and Anderson and illustrator Emily Carroll, who spoke to SLJ by phone about the challenges and rewards of adapting the book, anticipate Speak: The Graphic Novel reaching a new generation of readers.

Laurie Halse Anderson.
Photo by Joyce Tenneson

Known for eerie, supernatural fare (such as the unnerving graphic novel Through the Woods), Carroll might seem an unusual choice to illustrate a work of realistic fiction, but both Anderson and editor Joy Peskin knew no one else could do the book justice. “She was picked deliberately because of her gift...for conveying horror. And this is a horror novel,” says Anderson. Carroll’s ominous black-and-white visuals vividly capture the devastation of being unable to voice one’s torment. Elegant linework abruptly turns jagged, casting a grotesque pall. Melinda’s angry parents become monsters; cheerful faces at a pep rally take on a crazed look.

Emily Carroll

Nowhere is that horror more evident than in the scene where Melinda is raped. While Andy pins Melinda down, her mind goes to a happier time—just a few hours earlier, when she and her friend Rachel got dressed for the party. But an image of Andy looming over her bleeds into the panel of the two girls smiling. Drawing that pivotal moment, that loss of innocence, was painful for Carroll. “I had to stop; I started crying,” she says. “If you’re a teen in that situation, you would look back on that memory with sort of an envy.”

The dawning realization that the world isn’t as safe or reassuring as Melinda was taught to believe is central to the narrative. After that night, Melinda frequently recalls carefree childhood memories with a mixture of bitterness and wistful longing. “Part of adolescence is seeing the world for what it is instead of the fairy tale that your parents have spun for you,” says Anderson. That’s why, she notes, “so many teens are so deliciously sarcastic.”

Illustrator Emily Carroll's

That acerbic inner monologue appealed to Carroll. She hadn’t read the original book before being asked to illustrate the graphic novel, but having coped with depression as an adolescent, she quickly connected with its gimlet-eyed protagonist. “I saw myself so much in her, and even if our situations weren’t the same, I related to her mind-set, [her] bleak humor,” she said, adding that the graphic novel version of Melinda even looks like she did as a teen.

Anderson and Carroll never sugarcoat Melinda’s pain; she’s bullied by classmates and watches quietly as fellow students swoon over predatory Andy. But a glimmer of hope permeates the novel. In a sequence Anderson calls “one of the first #MeToos in YA literature,” Melinda scrawls the heading “Boys To Stay Away From: Andy Evans” on the wall of a girls’ bathroom. When she returns to see comments by girls who have had similar experiences (“Should B locked up”; “Call the cops”), she finally knows that she isn’t alone.

Though Peskin stresses that Speak has always been relevant, she says that it has a particular importance now, with women in many industries voicing their experiences with sexual harassment and rape and naming the powerful, often beloved men who have abused them. Carroll believes that the graphic novel will resonate with young people who have confronted sexual violence but may not have identified with movements such as #MeToo, which emphasize the experiences of adults.

Anderson hopes that the book will reach anyone who has endured trauma. Young people often don’t have the language to talk about what they’re going through, she says, but “when you see your pain in a story, it helps you articulate it sometimes.”  

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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Jennifer Bee

Octavia Butler's Kindred was a great graphic adaptation. I also liked the recent Poe anthology by Gareth Hinds. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and "Monster" by Walter Dean Myers.

Posted : Feb 22, 2018 01:58

Georgia Grandstaff

I just finished the graphic novel version of Speak and I loved it! I run a book to movie club at my Library and I'm so happy that a graphic version exists because it will help pull in kids to the club who ONLY read graphic novels (I'm letting kids pick the regular book or the graphic). Question: Does anyone know any more YA books that have been made into graphic novels?

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 11:15


Hi Georgia, I can recommend the graphic novels of A Wrinkle in Time (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Yen Press).

Posted : Feb 16, 2018 03:26


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