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Book Review: Spoken

Spoken. Melanie Weiss. Oak Park IL: Rosehip Publishing, March 15, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 195 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

Melanie Weiss’s debut work of young adult fiction captures the angst and inner workings of a teenager, Roman Santi, whose life is transformed from residing in a mansion with a housekeeper in Los Angeles to sleeping on grandma’s sofa bed with a statue of the Buddha staring at him. The novel is a lovely, refreshingly sweet and poignant story about a kid not warped by a society and whose goal is to live happily ever after, be a friend, find friends, and find the father he’s never known. One of my favorite lines is from Roman’s first day at his new school, when he’s challenged by his mother’s over-the-top appearance as a minor movie star in exile: “Welcome to my world, where I’m happy my hippie grandma is the one taking me to school today.”

Everybody knows about being fifteen. Teens suffer amid the transcending moments. Roman finds his transcending moment when a poem and a girl spark his interest and he joins an after-school poetry club. Weiss, a trained journalist, writes what she knows about Midwestern living and the experiences of the Spoken Word movement in high school and shares her inspiration for the novel. During the late nineties, when the character Roman was born, Spoken Word was incorporated into the English classroom in Oak Park. Weiss credits this performance writing as a means for students to share their struggles and triumphs. Her character, Roman, found his niche in this program, although he decides not to share his poetry with his family. “The only way I can be real about what I write is if I know I won’t have to explain myself to them,” Roman says. Participating in Spoken Word allows him to uncork his bottle of stuffed feelings about his place in life, environment, and upbringing.

When an opportunity to go to Europe arises from a Spoken Word competition, Roman, with the encouragement of his friend, Zuzu, takes a step on a journey to find his father. Roman knows only that his father is a French cruise ship entertainer his mother met the summer they both worked on board. First, he has to earn the right to be part of the poetry team to compete against the team’s London counterparts.

Roman shares his story through first-person present tense narrative, an effective method of bonding the reader to him. Spoken is not one of those in-your-face epic hero journeys. It’s a rare peek into a contemporary high school freshman year, where the onus to grab life and make meaningful memories is a primary objective. It’s difficult to find comparisons to today’s contemporary YA. Spokenis a finely tuned story about coming to grips with identity without needing to kill, die, have sex, travel through time or space, or do drugs. The cover is an evocative rendering of experiencing not only what you learn, but how you can share it. I enjoyed the story and recommend it for middle grade and older readers.


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