scarlet letter  speak

Note: This post is part of a series on School Library Media/Materials for a course

Hawthorne, N. & Stowe, C. (2014).  The Scarlet letter (annotated): Student edition. (Amazon Kindle Edition)

Halse Anderson, L. (1999). Speak. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux. 

Summary, The Scarlet Letter: The story of The Scarlet Letter is most likely familiar to most. The story primarily follows the experiences of Hester Prynne, living in seventeenth century Boston. Hester, a married woman, is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter A (for adultery) upon her breast for having an affair with an unknown man despite her marriage (to a long absent and possibly dead husband.)  The story also delves into the world of Arthur Dimmesdale, the Reverend, and Roger Chillingworth, who also both seem to hold secrets within their hearts.  For Dimmesdale, this secret manifests as psychological anguish and physical infirmity that allows Chillingworth, who is actually Hester’s estranged husband under a new name, to begin on his path to revenge against the Reverend.

Summary, Speak: Melinda Sordino is starting the ninth grade at Merryweather High in silence. The previous summer a terrible event occurred that has led to her being ostracized by everyone who knows her name and yet she still cannot speak of the event. While her former friends have ostracized her for calling the police at the party of the summer, the truth for Melinda is far worse. Speak follows Melinda’s freshman year in high school as she struggles to survive under a heavy cloak of shame. While Hester Prynne wears her shame as an embroidered letter, Melinda’s is evidenced by the cuts on her mouth where she continually bites her lips, a constant reminder of her inability to speak of the events during the summer.  Her only reprieve is her art class, where she can find the expression that her voice lacks.

Quantitative reading level:

The Scarlet Letter: Lexile Level (from Lexile Find a book): 940L; ATOS Book Level (From AR Book Finder) 11.7. Recommended interest level: upper grades 9-12

Speak: Lexile Level (from Lexile Find a book): 690L; ATOS Book Level (from AR Book Finder) 4.5. Recommended interest Level: Upper grades 9-12.

Qualitative reading analysis (Text Complexity measures analyzed using SCASS/Achieve the Core Literature rubric)

The Scarlet Letter:

Text Structure: The structure of The Scarlet Letter is very to exceedingly complex. Organization includes subplots and complex characters as well as multiple characters with multiple points of view and experiences. No graphics are used in the text.

Language features: The language of the book is exceedingly complex. Conversationality is dense and complex and contains abstract and figurative language. The vocabulary is generally unfamiliar, archaic and time bound to Puritan New England. Sentence structure contains many complex sentences.

Meaning: The meaning varies but mostly falls into the more complex areas of the spectrum. The text contains multiple levels of meaning that may be difficult for some readers to identify. The theme vacillates between subtle and ambiguous and is revealed throughout the entirety of the story. There is heavy use of symbolism by the author.

Knowledge demands: The knowledge demands of the text are more complex than the average reader encounters. Themes are of varying levels of complexity and abstraction that are often multifaceted and sophisticated. Experiences portrayed in the story would be uncommon to most readers (on the surface, under closer inspection and with proper context many themes may become more familiar to contemporary readers) Cultural knowledge demands are fairly high as they are ties to the time period of the content.


Text Structure: Organization is moderately to very complex. Text includes a single storyline but does include time shifts and a very complex main character leading to greater complexity. There is no use of graphics.

Language features: Conversationality is largely explicit and literal; however there are some occasions for more complex meaning and symbolism. Vocabulary is contemporary, familiar and conversational language. Sentence structure is not overtly complex, consisting of mainly simple and compound sentences.

Meaning: The meaning is very complex. There are multiple levels of meaning, especially when assessing the symbolism in the main character’s art that may be difficult to identify for some readers. The theme is mostly subtle and is revealed over the entirety of the text.

Knowledge demands: Life experiences explored in the story are moderately to very complex with several themes, some common and some uncommon to most readers. There is some reference to The Scarlet Letter leading to natural comparisons between Hawthorne’s classic and the current text. There are no allusions to cultural elements beyond contemporary American culture.

Content areas:

The Scarlet Letter: English, Fiction-US History, Fiction-Puritan America, Classics

Speak: Contemporary fiction, young adult fiction, Coming of Age

Content area standards:

Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry); evaluating how each version interprets the source text.

Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Curriculum suggestions: Literature, Compare & contrast themes of ostracism and shame. Comparing symbolism in classic and contemporary texts of similar themes.

Personal thoughts: I’ve read both of these books before, though not in conjunction and so I never saw the parallels between them before. I found myself struggling considerably to finish the Scarlet Letter and found myself sympathizing with students everywhere required to read the book. Knowing I had a secondary text to compare the book to helped, as did reinterpreting some of the themes and events in the book. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Steubenville case while reading both books, especially The Scarlet Letter. I found I could easily see parallels of the marketplace where Hester is forced to stand and be judged and the online communities that now exist and are used for this purpose. I couldn’t help but think of the Twitter and Facebook posts that vilified the victim in the Steubenville case and how the posters felt it was their duty to do so (as did the women in the marketplace in Hawthorn’s tale.)

Other Subjects/themes: Shame, women’s history, social ostracism, rape.

Awards: Speak: National Book Award Finalist

Digital Content:


Perspective Commentary: The Scarlet Letter and Speak