Books·How I Drew It

How Emily Carroll illustrated Laurie Halse Anderson's groundbreaking YA novel Speak

Originally published in 1999, Speak follows a teenager's recovery and isolation after sexual assault.
Stratford, Ont. artist Emily Carroll (above) was chosen by American author Laurie Halse Anderson to illustrate her seminal YA novel Speak. (Courtesy of Raincoast Books)

Published in 1999, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak was a groundbreaking work of young adult fiction. The novel follows a school year in the life of Grade 9 student Melinda, who is ostracized from day one for calling the cops and shutting down an end-of-summer party. What her classmates don't know (and refuse to hear) is that Melinda was raped by a popular upperclassman at the party.

Halse Anderson, who is a survivor of sexual violence, entrusted Stratford, Ont.-based artist Emily Carroll to illustrate the graphic novel version of this powerful book. Below, Carroll describes the emotional and creative process behind Speak

Her first time reading Speak

"I was not familiar with the book, its readership or how pivotal the book was in the history of YA novels and what it meant for sexual assault survivors. What struck me about it was that it felt very honest. Even though the book is almost 20 years old, teenagers still relate to it and I related to it too. When I was 13 — the main character Melinda's age — I went through a period of really bad depression and art helped me at that time [as it does for Melinda]. I related to the point where Melinda's physical appearance looks like me when I was 12 or 13."

Dark head spaces

"It's a dark head space to be in for so long. There'd be times when I'd have to stop and get up and leave the room or go for a walk because I was so focused on how to render Melinda's pain accurately.

"I drew the book out of order. I didn't want to start at the beginning and then draw straight to the end and have my art improve over the course of the book. But I also wanted to be able to choose, for my own mental and emotional health, what I was going to work on every day."

Tori Amos, then and now

"I was listening to a lot of Tori Amos because I listened to Tori Amos when I was 13. I found out later from Laurie that she also listened to a lot of Tori Amos when she wrote the original book. There was one point where I was listening to — this is comically sad — Smells Like Teen Spirit, the cover, by Tori Amos, on loop. I started getting overwhelmed and my wife Kate, who shares an office with me, was like, 'Are you listening to sad music? Stop listening to that. You can't just be in that space relentlessly for too long.' It helped to have somebody to pull me out of it."

The summer before high school, Melinda attended a party that would completely alter her life. Speak was written by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll. (Courtesy of Raincoast Books)

Working with Laurie Halse Anderson

"Laurie's never worked in comics before so her graphic novel script was pretty loose compared to what comic writers will often send their artist. A comic writer's script will say: 'Scene one. Setting: An abandoned warehouse. Panel one: Batman walks by.' They might say how many panels they want on a page or what they want to be happening in each panel.

"But Laurie's script was lines from the book and she never wrote page numbers. She never touched the pacing at all. She never talked about panels. She would say certain actions that were happening in a scene, but there was never any direction as to what had to be in each panel or anything to do with page turns. All of the pacing was left to me, which I liked and is probably why the book ended up so long.

"But then when I sent it in to them they weren't happy with it. They said, 'There's too many boxes in this comic book.' They wanted more of like a dreamlike quality, so they encouraged me to not use panel borders and try to use more creative borders and use more splash pages."

Melinda, the main character of Speak, is ostracized on the first day of high school. Speak was written by Laurie Halse Anderson and drawn by Emily Carroll. (Courtesy of Raincoast Books)

Being part of a bigger story

"I think Laurie is amazing. She's an amazing speaker and an inspirational person. I wasn't ready for how moving it is and how overwhelming it is to be around readers of Speak and fans of Laurie. She's changed people's lives. To be part of that, or to help with that, is huge. I very much feel like this book is something much bigger than me. That's been my favourite part — that nebulous feeling that I'm part of something bigger and useful and helpful to the world at large. Also, having Laurie tell me that she loved it. My main goal was to get Laurie's approval. For her to like it means a lot to me."

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