Three utterly fantastic YA titles: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Keeper by Mal Peet and The Knife That Killed Me by Anthony McGowan.
Speak (1999) is the story of Melinda Sordino, a freshman at Merryweather High School. The transition to high school is always traumatic: a shift from the (relatively) care free days of youth and innocence to a vastly more complicated world. In high school, the future matters - you're told about college and sex and adulthood - life isn't about potential any more - your acts now have meaning. (Ah, the "permanent record", is there anything more terrifying?) Moreover, high schools have hierarchies: not just the cliques and clubs, but also the ages. There are Varsity and Junior Varsity, Seniors and Juniors; as a freshman, you're the lowest rung on the social ladder, told to look up at, admire and emulate, those above you.
For Melinda, this transition is especially brutal. At the last of the big summer parties, she's raped by "IT" - her way of referring to the senior boy who takes advantage of her. In a state of shock, she calls the police and has the party broken up. No one knows of the sexual attack, but everyone knows that she's the girl that ruined the party. Melinda's not the lowest rung on the ladder: she's buried deep underground.
Speak is a beautiful, horrible novel: layered with manifestations of Melinda's enforced silence. She cannot find someone to talk to. When she does, she can't make them listen. She begins to believe that she has no voice and then, ultimately, it disappears - leaving her completely silent. The truly terrifying part, of course, is how little that seems to matter: although there's a bit of token concern by the "system" (parents, school), Melinda's unnatural silence is simply brushed aside, dealt with as routine adolescent angst. It is only through isolated incidents - connections with individuals - a teacher, a friend, a lab partner - that Melinda regains the power to communicate.
Ms. Anderson wraps up Speak in a way that's empowering without being a fairy tale. The ultimate lesson, I suppose, is something along the lines of people are good, even if individuals can be evil and, collectively, we can be dingbats. Communication is critical - it isn't that people don't want to hear, it is that sometimes they can't. But, just as critical: we need to make sure that people have the room, and the time, and the opportunity and the power to speak. A simply brilliant book in both story and message.