I’ve noticed an increase recently in the number of YA books being published featuring characters who are selectively mute (at least four published this year). They can speak, but choose not to – as opposed to characters that are involuntarily mute who cannot speak because of injury, illness or magic. I can’t exactly explain this trend except to say that maybe current events have made authors focus more on mental health issues. Many of the characters in these books who are selectively mute have experienced traumatic events and have reacted by engaging in self-harm or risky behaviors, or been bullied or bullied others. This has contributed to their loss of their voices – they’ve withdrawn into themselves and don’t want to anyone to pay any attention to them. It’s at this most vulnerable time in their lives that teens are finally becoming independent and learning to think for themselves. It’s vital that they be allowed to find their voices and express themselves in healthy ways because it will shape who they become.
Characters that are unable to speak but are able to communicate in other ways, such as through telepathy, are pretty common in science fiction and fantasy books. Most of the recent books I’m mentioning here are realistic fiction. There’s also a trend away from the secondary characters being the mute ones; it’s becoming more common for the main characters to be mute. Even if they have been victimized and become selectively mute, they have found other ways to express themselves – especially through art.
The withdrawn character who rarely speaks isn’t a new phenomenon in YA literature. Speak (1999), by Laurie Halse Anderson, (2000 Michael L. Printz Honor Winner; 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Winner) is a classic example, and a book that’s on many high school required reading lists and has inspired other books. In Speak, Melinda enters her freshman year of high school friendless and treated as an outcast because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. She becomes increasingly isolated and selectively mute. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at the party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends the same school as she does and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.
Another book that made a big impact on me when I read it was Hush: an Irish Princess’ Tale by Donna Jo Napoli (2008) (2009 Best Fiction for Young Adults). In Napoli’s story, Melkorka is a princess, the first daughter of a magnificent kingdom in medieval Ireland — but all of this is lost the day she is kidnapped and taken aboard a marauding slave ship. Thrown into a world that she has never known, alongside people that her former country’s laws regarded as less than human, Melkorka is forced to learn quickly how to survive. Taking a vow of silence, however, she finds herself an object of fascination to her captors and masters, and soon realizes that any power, no matter how little, can make a difference.
The Problem with Forever by Jennifer L. Armentrout (2016). Mallory is a foster kid who, during her traumatic childhood, protected herself by remaining mute. She was rescued from abusive foster parents when she was 13 and, since then, has been living with a loving foster family being homeschooled. Now, 17, she’s attending public high school for the first time, and she must gain the strength and courage to learn to speak up for herself.
Tommy Wallach’s Thanks for the Trouble (2016) (current Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee). Hispanic Parker Santé hasn’t spoken a word in five years, after witnessing his father’s tragic death in a car accident. While his classmates plan for bright futures, he skips school to hang out in hotels, killing time by watching the guests. But when he meets silver-haired Zelda Toth, who claims to be 246-years-old, but looks like a teenager, he discovers there just might be a few things left worth living for.
You Were Here by Cori McCarthy (2016). It’s been five years since Jake died – he broke his neck the day of his high school graduation while attempting a daredevil stunt. Jake’s sister, Jaycee, has had a hard time letting him go. It’s now Jaycee’s own high school graduation, but she’s still consumed with sadness, guilt and anger over his death. When she discovers a map in Jake’s old room of all the locations he visited during his urbex explorations (going to abandoned man-made structures like a mall or amusement park), she and a group of unlikely friends, including Mik, Jake’s former best friend who is now selectively mute, decide to re-create Jake’s path. Each character tells the story from their point of view, including Mik’s in graphic novel format, and another character’s through street art.
Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow (August 2016). Charlotte “Charlie” Davis has gone through so much in her almost 18 years. Her father committed suicide, and her mother’s grief turned to anger towards Charlie. Charlie hits her mother back, and gets kicked out on the streets. She cuts to cope. Then she meets a beautiful new girl in school and they become inseparable – until she’s gone too. That and several other traumatic experiences trigger the suicide attempt that lands Charlie in a mental facility where she’s selectively mute. Charlie’s experiences there are only a small part of this book that chronicles Charlie’s recovery and fight to regain her voice and her will to survive.
There are a number of books where the characters are involuntarily mute as well. The main reason the characters can’t speak is because their tongues have been partially or fully cut out of their mouths. This seems to be a common form of punishment throughout the ages.
One of the more unforgettable books where a character experiences this is All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry (2013) (2014 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults). Even though it’s not set in medieval times, it has an otherworldly feel to it, not unlike Hush. Judith is the village outcast because she was kidnapped, held prisoner and had her tongue partially cut out to silence her from talking about what happened the night she was taken. After two years, she was returned to her village, but is unable to speak and is shunned by everyone, including her own mother. Encouraged by an old friend, Judith is inspired to try to regain some speech. If she can find the means and courage to communicate what she knows, she and other innocent victims might find a form of salvation. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story.
It seems like many of the characters who become involuntarily mute by having their tongues removed are servants. The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal (2013), a 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, beautifully chronicles the fates of a young seamstress and a mute royal nursemaid that find that they are at the center of an epic power struggle set in 16th century Scandinavia in this complex and lyrical YA debut.
Corinne Duyvis’s fantasy Otherbound (2014) features Amara, a bisexual mute servant girl from another world who is charged with protecting a princess in hiding, while in our world, a disabled epileptic teenager named Nolan is trapped in Amara’s mind and can experience her thoughts and experiences every time he blinks. At first he’s only an observer in Amara’s world—until he’s not. At first, Amara is terrified by this new presence controlling her. But they eventually learn that the only way to protect the princess and escape danger is to work together.
The last recently published book featuring a character who’s rendered involuntarily mute is Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black (2016) (current Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee). Blue Riley has wrestled with her own demons ever since the loss of her mother to cancer. But when she encounters a beautiful devil at her town crossroads, it’s her runaway sister’s soul she fights to save. The devil steals Blue’s voice—inherited from her musically gifted mother—in exchange for a single shot at finding Cass. This search for her sister exposes her to America’s marginalized, as her mutism elicits confusion, confessions, and sympathy along the way in this adventure story laced with magical realism.
Many of these stories may not be easy to read but they reflect the real experiences of many teens. They need to know that there is hope for them and that they are not alone.
~Sharon Rawlins – currently reading Rise of the Wolf by Jennifer A. Nielsen