Sometime around seventh grade, I walked into the Woodlawn public library and saw a book cover with a close-up photo of a Black girl whose skin was so dark there were blue undertones. Her cheekbones were sharp and her lips were so full. I was stunned, and figured that book must be about that girl. And she kinda looked like me.
The book was The Skin I’m In, by Sharon Flake. At that time, I’d mostly been reading Judy Blume or Phyllis Reynolds Naylor or Sarah Dessen, who all wrote about kids with non-specific races but with descriptors like “long brown hair and blue eyes.” They didn’t look like me, with my thick, kinky hair and deep brown eyes.
Sharon Flake writes about Black teens, and when I was a teen, it felt like she was one of few authors actually writing about us. Since its publication in 1998, The Skin I’m In has been translated into several languages and won the Coretta Scott King award. Before she wrote this novel, Flake had mostly written picture books. When she read an article in Essence magazine about an editor who works with Black young adult fiction, she said, “That’s who I’ll send my book to.” Twenty years later, she has written eight other young adult novels and story collections and travels around the country talking to young people about how important it is that they see themselves reflected in books. Flake will be at the CityLit Festival this Saturday, April 27, to speak on a panel with Susan Muaddi Darraj, Tiffany D. Jackson, and Andrew Simonet about why teens need diverse books.
Flake’s novels focus specifically on urban youth—“inner city or urban, I never know what the right word to use is,” she tells me. To me, she is one of the best to ever do so. I had to ask her what she felt was so different about how she writes characters. “I want to, as best I can, honor the people I write about. I want to honor Black people but I’m not taking the easy way out,” she says. “I want to have people walk away seeing the humanity of these people. I think that’s it, the humanity is there.”
In The Skin I’m In, Maleeka Madison is a dark-skinned seventh grader who gets teased because of the color of her skin. Her father has recently died, and to cope with the grief, her mother has started sewing clothes for Maleeka which, of course, makes the other seventh graders roast her even more. Her closest friend, Char, is really just a bully who lets Maleeka borrow her clothes and hang with her so the other kids tease her less. A new teacher, Miss Saunders, comes to school with scars on her face yet full of confidence and notices that Maleeka is a talented writer, so she encourages her.
Flake’s writing is straightforward and simple, yet Maleeka Madison seems so real and tangible, as if I could run into her on the street. Maleeka was different from other young adult characters that I’d been reading. She still had opinions about everyone else even when people teased her. When they hurt her feelings, Maleeka knew that the problem was with those kids, not with her or the color of her skin.
Twenty years after publication, The Skin I’m In has aged well: Maleeka is still the powerful character I remember and her issues with self-esteem, grief, and friendship feel fresh. I was struck by how confident Maleeka was for a seventh grader. “I tell people that Langston [Hughes], my family, and my community let me know it was okay to be a little Black girl from North Philadelphia,” Flake says. “I always want to tell these stories so people get a sense of the love that comes with the community.”
Flake’s stories don’t perpetuate the doom and gloom that typifies stories about urban/inner-city youth. Of course, there is conflict—“that’s the point of fiction,” Flake says—but there is also romance, discovery, and love.
“I want to, as best I can, honor the people I write about. I want to honor Black people but I’m not taking the easy way out.” –Sharon Flake
Generational influences shine in Flake’s work. Often, I felt like other young adult novels focused on rebellious teens who were always trying to find reasons to hate their parents. When I read The Skin I’m In, I cried over the conversations Maleeka and her mother had—her mother was frank and upfront and trusted that Maleeka could handle it. When Maleeka and Miss Saunders were at odds, Maleeka still respected her because she could tell the teacher cared. Flake makes it clear that Miss Saunders didn’t “save” Maleeka, contrary to some readers’ perceptions. “The teacher didn’t save her,” Flake says. “The teacher was one of the people who helped her on her journey, [along with] her father, her mother, her friends.”
Regarding her book You Don’t Even Know Me, a collection of short stories about Black boys who are dealing with challenges ranging from teen pregnancy and marriage to sexual abuse, Flake emphasizes how important it was for her to write about the men in these boys’ lives who care for them. “The boy who’s getting married at 16… and the love that’s between him and his father-in-law… that’s right in the inner city, those things are still happening,” Flake says.
The cover of that collection, first published in 2010, features a Black boy in a hoodie. After the death of Trayvon Martin, who happened to be wearing a hoodie when George Zimmerman murdered him in 2012, people started asking Flake if her cover was a reference to Trayvon. “And I say no, that was [written] years before Trayvon—but who doesn’t wear a hoodie?” Flake says. At the core of Flake’s writing is an unwavering belief that Black kids are really just kids. There is so much writing that posits Black kids as monsters or geniuses, with few in-betweens, but Flake’s characters are just living their lives in the best way they know how.
In her career, Flake has spoken to over 200,000 students, typically after they’ve read a book of hers, since The Skin I’m In was published 20 years ago. Kids often ask her why it took Maleeka so long to find her voice and stick up for herself. “I say, because that’s life. You don’t figure it out, you fight and scrape and push your way to the top,” Flake says. “It’s not an easy journey.”
The 2019 CityLit Festival takes place Saturday, April 27, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the University of Baltimore’s William H. Thumel, Sr. Business Center. For more information, visit CityLit’s website.
Photos courtesy Sharon Flake.