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 This has contributed to their loss of their voices – they’ve withdrawn into themselves and don’t want to anyone to pay any attention to them.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The withdrawn character who rarely speaks isn’t a new phenomenon in YA literature.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.
Some of the recently published books featuring selectively mute characters include:
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.