Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Importance of Communication

Speak explores why communication is important, and how suppressing it allows negative situations to proliferate. The teachers at Melinda's school, for instance, create barriers to free expression in different ways. These range from Mr. Neck's always assuming that students have bad intentions to the Spanish teacher's refusal to listen when students speak English. But it’s not just the teachers at Melinda’s school that affect Melinda’s ability to communicate. At home, Melinda connects with her parents through post-its and sarcasm, two modes of communication notorious for being misunderstood, because she doesn’t feel heard when she does attempt to speak. When the family tries to have a real conversation about what is going on with Melinda, she hides in her room while her parents argue.

Throughout most of the book, Melinda's classmates ignore her unless they want to call her names, which makes it difficult for her to open up to any of them. Melinda learns that her school health class won't teach students about sex until 11th grade—another barrier in communication—so it's not surprising that Melinda doesn't even mention the word rape until the final third of the book. This detail suggests that Melinda does not even have the language to explain what happened to her, never mind anyone who will listen. The truth of Melinda’s experience only begins to come out when the girls at her school communicate with each other, first anonymously on bathroom walls and later aloud. Melinda's main objective in the novel is to speak about her sexual assault, but she is surrounded by adults and peers who ignore her, value her silence, or punish her in some for or fashion for expressing herself, making it difficult for her to articulate what she’s feeling.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Making Art

Melinda's art class unexpectedly becomes the place where she transforms the most because through art, she begins to understand herself again, and to process what she’s feeling in a safe environment. She loves the classroom because it is bright and filled with student art, and her favorite radio station is playing in the background. Although she finds Mr. Freeman odd, she is also intrigued by the way he embraces his role as an outcast and even celebrates it. Mr. Freeman teaches Melinda to express her emotions through her art, even the ones she’s tucked away. Art becomes a way for Melinda to connect to others, as when Mr. Freeman senses her pain in her work or when her parents notice her love of art and gift her art supplies for Christmas. The class also provides a reason for Melinda to reconnect to her old friend Ivy, signifying a reemerging connection to the person Melinda was before this past summer. Through her artwork, Melinda re-learns how to express herself, at first nonverbally and eventually out loud.

The Conflicted Feelings Inherent in Growing Up

Speak examines the grief many teens feel for the end of their childhood. The transition to adolescence takes years, is different for every single person, and causes changes that can be distressing. Several times Melinda pines for happy moments in her past, such as the perfect day in the orchard with her parents, having fun with the Plain Janes, or watching her mother decorate the house for Christmas. Now, Melinda's friends have all gone in different directions and she decorates the house by herself, offering a stark contrast to the memories she looks back on. Several times, Melinda describes herself as being in a space between childhood and adulthood that she doesn't understand. She is too old to trick-or-treat but still wishes that she could. Her room is still the rose pink she painted it many years ago even though she hates it. While her mom used to take her shopping, now she shops alone, and browsing the "young lady" section of the store feels strange to her. Speak portrays teenagers not as adults, but as former children who are in the process of transitioning into adults, and suggests that existing in this in-between developmental space prompts a yearning for the past and a resistance to the very concept of growing up.

The Devastating Effects of Trauma

Melinda experiences several different trauma responses apart from the most readily apparent one that manifests itself in her not wanting to speak. She complains of a stomachache, has difficulty concentrating, and chews on her lips. She faints in biology. When the boy who attacked her comes close to her in the cafeteria, Melinda freezes. Her sense of smell heightens and she vomits. Over and over, Melinda experiences physical responses to details that trigger her memories of the trauma. Her confusion about what is wrong with her is explained in the scene where she walks through the hospital. She feels oddly comforted there and wishes she could stay and relax for a few days until she feels better, implying that she knows something is wrong with her, even if she doesn’t recognize what. Melinda doesn't yet understand that psychological trauma can seriously affect people in countless unseen ways for their entire lives. Early on in the book, she notes that Mr. Neck is possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from “one of those TV wars,” suggesting Melinda is aware of PTSD as a concept but doesn’t associate it with herself. Opening up about what happened allows Melinda to have the support she needs to heal from the trauma so she doesn't have to suffer from its effects.