Reviews /

Speak Up!

Authored by Rebecca Burgess
Illustrated by Rebecca Burgess
Published by HarperCollins Publishers

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Speak Up! is the story of a girl named Mia who is autistic. She struggles to fit in at school and is bullied for being different. Worse still, Mia finds it difficult to find the words to confront her bullies. However, Mia has a secret – she has an online personality (Elle-Q) who has gone viral for her amazing voice! The story follows Mia as she has the chance to take part in the school’s talent contest and showcase who she really is. But… Mia is nervous. How will her peers react to the news that Mia is Elle-Q? Encouraged by her friend, Charlie, Mia takes the plunge with surprising results!

This graphic novel is a page-turner as it feels naturally engaging and relatable for young people. Rebecca Burgess, the author and illustrator, identifies as autistic and is a champion for including more autistic people as protagonists in books. It is their authentic voice that makes Speak Up! so credible. Through Mia’s story, they sensitively tackle stereotypes of autistic people and, although seemingly light-hearted at times, there are strong moral messages for readers to take in. For instance, when one of Mia’s peers asks her how she knows what she is feeling and she replies, ‘Ha. Not everyone who is autistic can’t read emotions, Laura’. The illustrations are also powerful in portraying Mia when she is becoming overwhelmed – the thought bubbles telling a contrasting story to her body language. In my opinion, this is why this story works so well as in a graphic novel format.

An inclusive set of protagonists is at the core of this modern story. For example, Mia’s best friend, Charlie, is non-binary, but this is a subtle inclusion inferred through the illustrations. Speak Up! builds towards an empowering message of celebrating difference and of individuals being able to find their inner ‘superpower’ which is why it will be a hit with a middle-grade audience of Year 5 upwards. Although more challenging logistically to read aloud a graphic novel to a class, Upper KS2 teachers may find the rich conversations stemming from this book well worth the effort.