In the 20 years since Sharon G. Flake published her groundbreaking young adult novel, The Skin I’m In, she has influenced several generations and her books have been taught in schools from New York to Oklahoma.
It’s no wonder, as this book, the winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, does all the things that we look to literature to do. There is tension and growth. There are fully-realized, multi-dimensional characters driving the narrative. And the language is clear and concise, but also evocative. Protagonist Maleeka sums up the feelings many of us had in middle school when she says, “I stare at myself for maybe twenty minutes in Daddy’s mirror. I think I’m kind of nice-looking. Why don’t other people see what I see?”
Most grown people wouldn’t return to that most awkward age on a dare, but Flake is able to really immerse herself in the experience. “I probably was born to it,” she told the Pittsburgh Current recently. “It’s a hard time for everybody. You look in the mirror in 5th grade, you probably think you’re cute and wonderful because your mom is telling you. Then you get to 7th grade and you start to look outward at the world and compare yourself a lot. It wasn’t that other people made it so hard for me, so much as that my internal critic started chirping. I’ve never forgotten what it was like. At heart, I’m probably still 15.”
Flake grew up in Philadelphia, but studied at the University of Pittsburgh and remained, making Pittsburgh her home. The author of numerous books including Bang!, Who Am I Without Him? and Unstoppable Octobia May, she is, of course, at work on something new, but also taking time to travel and speak on the 20-year anniversary of The Skin I’m In.
Since publication in 1998, the young adult market has changed and is taken seriously by educators and marketers alike. In recent years, we have also seen the emergence of “We Need Diverse Books” as a movement. The needle is moving, ever so slightly, toward awareness within the publishing world of the importance of books that serve as both mirrors and windows for children and teens — books which reflect the life experience for kids in minority or marginalized communities, as well as books that open up kids to an understanding of lives that are different from theirs. But this wasn’t always so.
“I wrote a story about an African-American inner-city girl,” Flake explained. “America is not always kind to that group — African-American inner-city young people. We don’t always care what kind of schools they attend, whether they get shot or not, whether people say horrific things, whether they get stereotyped. We don’t care. So it’s okay if we fail them, as a society.”
Teenager Maleeka Madison is struggling with all sorts of things — poverty, the death of her father and her mother’s enduring grief, her own intelligence and talent, and how to navigate school with her peers at this crucible moment and the value society puts on light skin versus dark.
It’s the kind of work that changes lives. How many people can say that? How many writers get letters saying, ‘your book changed my life?’ Or get to meet kids who tell you how important your work is. Flake frequently visits schools and gets just this kind of feedback.
“The kids who write me into their college entrance essays in which they say the book changed their lives and why it changed their lives,” Flake said expansively. “When I first got one I was like, wow. You only get one quarter for that school and then you decide to spend it saying how this book changed your life? That’s your one quarter and you spend it that way.”