Author: Don Zolidis
Publication date: May 5, 2020
Genre: young adult, contemporary fiction, realistic fiction
My rating: 4/5 stars
Speech team kids, rejoice: finally, the art of competitive public speaking has crept into mainstream consciousness enough for us to get a whole book about forensics! (For those of you who haven’t taken part in the wild experience that is high school or college speech team, “forensics” is another term for speech team. Seriously, their national organization is the NFL–the National Forensics League. I couldn’t make this up if I wanted to.)
Regardless of whether you did speech or not, you could probably guess that speech culture is…well, not the most positive. And so Don Zolidis, known in the real-world forensics community for his wide range of hilarious plays, often used in competition, has now written a book that leans into the toxic speech team culture with a team of hilarious, sarcastic, scheming social outcasts who want to change things for the better.
I’m just going to go with the one from the publishers–this is one of the rare cases where it really captures the book’s essence!
Not everyone can be a winner…
Sydney Williams knows this better than anyone. After her white-collar- criminal dad is sent to prison, Sydney fails almost all of her classes and moves into a dingy apartment with her mom, who can barely support them with her minimum-wage job at the mall.
A new school promises a fresh start. Except Eaganville isn’t exactly like other high schools. It’s ruled with an iron fist by a speech team that embodies the most extreme winner-takes-all philosophy.
Sydney is befriended by a group of fellow misfits, each of whom has been personally victimized by the speech team. It turns out Sydney is the perfect plant to take down the speech team from within.
With the help of her co-conspirators, Sydney throws herself into making Nationals in speech, where she will be poised to topple the corrupt regime. But what happens when Sydney realizes she actually has a shot at . . . winning? Sydney lost everything because of her dad’s obsession with being on top. Winning at speech might just be her ticket out of a life of loserdom. Can she really walk away from that?
I would like to start by clarifying that, were I not someone who grew up competing on speech, I would probably have given this book a 4.5 or higher. Oddly enough, the thing that most drew me to this book–it’s relation to my own personal experience–ended up being the thing that detracted most from it. But more on that later.
First, let’s start with some background for everyone here on two key points:
1. What is “speech team”? Is it the same as debate?
So, speech and debate are not the same thing, though they commonly occur together and, in this book, the team includes both debate and speech kids.
A lot of people have this mental image of speech as being just a bunch of kids in suits giving persuasive speeches all day. This is only half true. Speech has upwards of ten different event categories, depending on the state that you’re in–I’m from Illinois, where we had 14, but other states can have more or fewer. These include acting events such as Dramatic Interpretation (deliver a dramatic monologue from a play or book, completely in character) and Humorous Interpretation (perform a funny script in which you play every single character, with unique voices and poses for each, which are called “pops”); limited-prep events such as Impromptu Speaking (you’re given three prompts, have two minutes to select a prompt and prepare, and then give a six-minute speech on it) and Extemporaneous Speaking (you’re given a question about current events and have 45 minutes to prepare a speech, including citing sources, to argue for one specific answer to the question); and public address events such as Original Oratory (give a persuasive speech) and Special Occasion Speaking (like Oratory, but make it funny, and deliver as if you’re talking to a highly specific audience).
Speech tournaments are wild and sometimes-miserable affairs where you spend an entire Saturday at school, with students from maybe a few or maybe dozens of other schools in the area, wearing a suit (and likely getting blisters from wearing heels), and performing multiple times in multiple rounds where you’re scored against other students in your same event. The competition is whittled down until you have a “final” round in each event with the best performers of the day, and from this final, the winners are chosen. You generally have to be ready to go by 6:30 in the morning in order to leave in time to get to the tournament, and you finish sometime around 6 in the evening. It’s a long day. And for some reason, none of us ever end up complaining about it?
2. So, Kathryn, you did speech?
Yeah. Yeah, I did. My high school team was crazy competitive and I was never one of our regional representatives, but I still enjoyed it. While our coach was actually a really cool guy–Hemant Mehta, also known as The Friendly Atheist, maybe you’ve heard of him?–unlike the coach Sydney deals with in War and Speech, I can attest to the fact that, even without a coach driving the mentality, there is an obsession with winning that comes with being on speech. It’s like the intensity of sports teams, amplified by the fact that the students participating tend more toward the academic and/or theatrical side (meaning they tend to be a bit more high-strung), and the fact that events are either individual or in pairs, meaning it’s hard to blame your success or lack thereof on anyone else. People lose sleep and practice for obscene numbers of hours. It’s just part of the package.
I was never one of the coaches’ favorites, even though I did pretty well, and I’m not going to lie, I got pretty bitter about it. We see a similar thread to that idea unfold in this book, too, where coaches pick their favorites and basically ignore everyone else. But I still loved my teammates, and even if I was getting the short end of the stick, I was still happy to support them as they absolutely killed it. I’m proud to say that I am friends with multiple former Illinois state champions across a variety of categories.
Since graduating high school, I’ve continued to periodically return to my high school team to help as a judge at tournaments. I get paid, I get free coffee and food, and it’s a fun way to spend a day–honestly, the judges are treated much better than the competitors. And now, the coaches from our team suddenly take me way more seriously and invite me to help at practices, in a way they never did when I competed. Funny how that works.
Side note, one of the biggest reasons I wanted to read this book was because, as I mentioned earlier, Don Zolidis is kind of a big deal in the world of forensics. While I never did any of his pieces myself–since he writes such funny things, his pieces are often over-done–I have multiple friends who performed some version of his plays, usually in Humorous Interpretation. I just had to see what he was like writing in a narrative form, rather than a script, and I was not disappointed.
Now, on to thoughts about the book!
This was, above all else, a quick and entertaining read. Seriously, I flew through it, even though I was in a bit of a slump. Sydney is a hilarious narrator, and I highlighted a ridiculous number of quotes from her dryly sarcastic commentary. Here are a few choice moments I selected:
I should point out that it was about twenty degrees outside, but when you’re a sexy CrossFit man, you become immune to all weather through the sheer force of your ego.
“Dude, we have to get this,” said one dude to another dude.
“Dude, yes,” said another one.
“Dude, fuck!” said one who was probably the poet of the group.
“I’m not big into romance,” he said.
“I’m more into the, uh…aftermath of romance.” He winked.
“The bitter breakups?”
“No, prior to the breakups.”
“The jealous rages?”
“The distant silences when someone spends more time on their phone than talking to you?” I loved talking to Anesh.
“What do you have to drink?” he said, giving up.
His head was likely the next one on the chopping block. (Even though, let’s be honest, this was Minnesota, so they were going to decapitate [him] in the nicest possible manner while serving him a horrific fish dinner.)
“That is classy as fuck.”
“I believe you’ve just given me the title of my memoir. Classy as Fuck: The Sydney Williams Story.”
He rapped on our door too forcefully, as if to say, Here I am, the gym biscuit of your dreams, blessed with an unfortunate amount of self-confidence.
“WHY IS YOUR KNEE FONDLING MY KNEE?”
Aside from the comedy, one of the things that impressed me most about this book was how smoothly it could juxtapose the wide variety of problems high school students face. Sydney has obvious, very concrete problems, like her father being in prison and her family’s financial problems. She also experiences and witnesses more social/emotional/psychological problems like the verbally abusive coach of the speech team, her general dislike of her mother’s new boyfriend, and a (straight) boy on speech who appropriates and exploits the experience of a gay boy Sydney is friends with. And yet, next to these bigger problems, there are also the subtle annoyances of high school life: the casual elitism and social cache of the speech team, the overwhelming need everyone feels to be the best and be on varsity, and of course, a smattering of romantic tension that is totally unwanted and yet impossible to ignore. High school students deal with a lot of problems, and while sometimes the bigger ones can put the smaller ones in perspective, it’s also just an unfortunate reality that sometimes there are just too many to juggle, and teenage emotions can make something as small as a crush feel like a really big deal, too.
I will admit that some of the characters in this book felt a smidge one-dimensional, but here’s the thing: this book is, at its heart, a satire. Of course there will be characters that are larger-than-life. Of course there will be complete and total douchebags with zero redeeming traits. Of course we will have our main character in the middle of it all, a seemingly normal-ish person in a world that is anything but that. And as Zolidis has proven time and again in his plays, he is a master of satire.
So why wasn’t this a five-star read? Inaccuracy. For all that Zolidis says he has been involved with speech, and as much as his pieces get performed, he had a lot of details wrong which just grated on my nerves. Even though I am from one specific state, I’m also familiar with how national speech works on both high school and collegiate circuits. (I didn’t do speech in college but one of my best friends did, and I had her confirm some of these details for me.) His description of how rounds work was not quite right; in the book, people are eliminated after every round of performance, but in reality, there are multiple rounds of prelims before anyone gets eliminated. This helps account for biased judges and scoring flukes, so the people who “break” to the final have to do well in three separate performances in order to qualify.
He also gave a very inaccurate depiction of what Original Oratory is. About halfway through the book, Sydney switches categories to OO, which in real life should have meant she was giving a persuasive speech. Instead, she just delivered a dramatic monologue about her life, which is not a category in any speech circuit I know of (unless you get it published and then use it for Dramatic Interpretation, which is not what happened here). I know this book isn’t necessarily meant to mirror real life, but there are other ways the scenes and the speech could have been written to carry the same plot themes without veering from veracity.
If you were never on speech, though, these inaccuracies shouldn’t bother you, and you can feel free to ignore those details! Overall, the book was a delight to read, with enough emotion to keep it from feeling trite, and enough humor to keep it from feeling outright depressing. Highly recommended for anyone who likes revenge plots, high school drama, ragtag teams of friends, and characters who defy the odds and others’ expectations.
About the Author
Don Zolidis grew up in Wisconsin, went to college in Minnesota, and is mostly known for being a really funny playwright. For the past five years, he’s been the most-produced playwright in American schools. His more than one hundred published plays have been performed tens of thousands of times, and have appeared in sixty-four different countries. He currently splits his time between New York and Texas, and has two adorable boys who will someday read this book and have a lot of questions. He aspires to owning a dog. His first novel was The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig.
Find Don online at:
If you’re interested in reading this book (and, really, you should be), you can find info and/or places to purchase at:
(Note: I’m not getting any money or commission from these! They’re not affiliate links, just general links for your convenience.)
For more reviews, interviews, and other fun content about this book, check out the rest of the tour hosts HERE!
And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for: a chance to win a copy of the book! This will run from April 29th to May 13th, and it is open to US only (sorry, international friends).a Rafflecopter giveaway https://widget-prime.rafflecopter.com/launch.js
And with that, I am going to end this obscenely long post–if you’re still reading, props to you. Are you thinking about giving this book a shot? Got more questions about speech, either from my experience or from what’s in the book? Leave a comment and let me know!
All the best,
Amazing review, Kathryn! It’s really eye-opening to hear about this topic from someone who has done it in real life. They never had it in my international schools and while these types of clubs have made their way onto the big screen, I don’t think I’ve actually read a book about it before, or gone into such detail. Definitely had no idea about the inaccuracies but Sydney was such a fab MC. This had me laughing constantly through to the end and even made me a little bit emotional (although I guess I’m already an emotional hot mess right now LOL). I agree that the characters were all pretty one-dimensional and I wanted more development but I can’t even be mad about it. It was such an enjoyable read 😀
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Aw, thank you Dini! It was fun getting to see something that was a huge part of my life, on the pages of an actual book, even with its inaccuracies. And I totally agree, Sydney was an awesome main character–I definitely audibly snorted a couple times while trying to suppress my laughter at her commentary!
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