A Place in the World
University of Pittsburgh best-selling author Sharon G. Flake has a sequel that explores the bully of “The Skin I'm In.”
The first time I seen her I got a bad feeling inside. Not like I was in danger or nothing. Just like she was somebody I should stay clear of. To tell the truth, she was a freak like me. The kind of person folks can’t help but tease. That’s bad if you’re a kid like me. It’s worse for a new teacher like her.
– Opening of “The Skin I’m In” by Sharon G. Flake
Katherine Bruce walked into the Alumni Theater Company in East Liberty and her stomach dropped. “It’s Sharon G. Flake,” she thought, her mind automatically including the middle initial like it was the name of a rock star. The 16-year-old girl from Homewood took a deep breath, reminding herself that famous people were human, too.
Bruce had never been much of a reader, but Flake’s groundbreaking novel, “The Skin I’m In,” spoke to her like no other book. Inside the lobby, she extended a shaky hand to Flake, but her jitters melted away as soon as the author smiled at her.
Bruce wasn’t just a fangirl. During this March audition, she read back the words from the iconic book that Flake had made into a script. Bruce would go on to land the role of Maleeka Madison, the dark-skinned Black girl who was bullied by her classmates and embodies the feeling of otherness experienced by so many teens.
At a dress rehearsal six months later, Bruce and the rest of the cast of “The Skin I’m In” performed for an audience of one — Flake herself. The author laughed out loud when the mean girl actors primped and slathered on lipstick in the graffiti-splattered bathroom. Flake teared up when the long-suffering Maleeka finally reached her breaking point with a bully, saying, “Yeah, I’m Black, real Black, and if you don’t like me, too bad cause Black is the skin I’m in.”
For Flake, it was an out-of-body experience, hearing her words read back to her. “Wow, I did that,” Flake said, her voice shaking. Flake is thrilled with how director Kim El stayed true to her vision. She was proud of the young Black actors on stage, the kids who reminded her of herself growing up in North Philadelphia.
“When I wrote ‘The Skin I’m In,’ I wanted people to see Black kids and understand they have a place in the world.”
‘I’M REALLY A FIFTH-GRADER’
Twenty-three years after she helped reshape children’s literature with her best-selling book, Flake has written a sequel. “The Life I’m In,” released in January, tells the story of Char, Maleeka’s bully who’s kicked out of her house and becomes entrapped in a sex trafficking ring. Her traumatic storyline intersects with Maleeka’s new one. Kirkus’ review calls it “a vivid and important depiction of the struggles of too many teens.”
In between these two novels, Flake became a full-time writer, won the Coretta Scott King Book Award and a slew of other honors, wrote nine more books, suffered from and then overcame writer’s block, and visited thousands of kids in schools across the country.
There, in dusty gymnasiums, packed auditoriums and fluorescent-lit classrooms, she found herself divulging secrets she hadn’t even told friends. “I’m not a good speller. I’m not good with grammar,” she’d say. She had panic attacks. In turn, the kids told her about their insecurities and problems. She listened. Really listened. “Never give up,” she told them. “I pushed and climbed, even if I had to cry while I did it. We aren’t that different.”
This 65-year-old woman has an uncanny knack for inhabiting the mind of teenagers and writing in their vernacular. “You know,” she says, flashing a mischievous grin, “I’m really a fifth-grader.”
In a more serious moment, she says she can write about the problems of teenagers because of the empathy she learned from her parents. Her dad Henry dug ditches and laid pipes for the gas company and her late mother Roberta was a housekeeper. Even with tight finances, they raised six children, several grandchildren and a niece, gave to charities and helped out neighbors.
Sharon Geraldine Flake (she hates the middle name but loves it for the middle initial) was the fifth of six kids, a shy bookworm. But no teacher in middle school or high school ever suggested she had precocious writing talent. “I don’t think they were missing anything.”
“I keep thinking maybe some teacher will call me today and say, ‘Sharon, I knew you were a great writer.’ But so far, no,” she says, bursting out into laughter. She went on to receive a bachelor’s in English at the University of Pittsburgh.
Her daughter Brittany is dark-skinned, and she knew about colorism in parts of the Black community — the belief that lighter skin was more valued than dark skin. To explore the theme in her writing, she didn’t just map out the character of Maleeka Madison. She poured herself into the soul of the teenage girl whose classmates mocked her handmade clothes and dark skin.
AT THE BEGINNING
The manuscript arrived on the desk of Andrea Davis Pinkney, famed children’s book editor, among a mountain of others — the so-called slush pile. It was 1996 — before electronic submissions — when Pinkney picked up Flake’s manuscript from the heap of paper.
“Maleeka’s voice reached out to me and came right up to my nose and started to tell me her story,” says Pinkney. “I thought, ‘Wow, this writer really has a very special voice and a gift.’” Middle-grade voice is one of the hardest things to teach. You either have it or you don’t, and Flake nailed it in a book written in African American English.
Flake, then director of Public Relations at Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, made it clear in her cover letter that this was her first novel. Over the next year, Pinkney, then working for an imprint of Disney Hyperion, suggested revisions.
Pinkney’s gut told her the book would hit the market like a rocket, and she was right. “It was groundbreaking in 1998. These conversations were not happening in children’s literature before.”
At the age of 42, Flake was a wildly successful debut author. Pinkney says “The Skin I’m In” opened the way for a new generation of African American children’s book writers. “So many writers working today — Angie Thomas, Renee Watson, Jason Reynolds — credit Sharon Flake.”
“The public reaction to Sharon’s book was the same reaction to Toni Morrison’s books. It was like, ‘Wow, we’ve never heard this before. Thank you,’” says Pinkney, now vice president and executive editor of Scholastic, and Flake’s editor for the sequel.
Although it’s written with a middle-grade student in mind, “The Skin I’m In” has found a much broader audience. People of all ages and ethnicities and genders showed up at bookstores and festivals when Flake gave readings. Maleeka tapped into the universal feeling of being an outsider, Pinkney says. “It’s a rite of passage book.”
And it’s as relevant today as it was two decades ago. Guidance counselors hand it out to students. Kids have even written college essays on the book. And, of course, teachers use it in their classrooms.
A LIFELONG FRIEND
Yolanda Harris couldn’t get her seventh- and eighth-grade classes at Monticello Middle School in Cleveland Heights interested in any books back in 2002 — until she started reading her copy of “The Skin I’m In” out loud. They were rapt, and if a kid came in a few minutes late, they begged her to back up and start again. At Harris’ request, they wrote letters to Flake, telling her how much they loved the book and asking her to visit. Harris stuffed the letters and a Polaroid photo of the class, most of them students of color, inside a large envelope and mailed it to the publisher.
Harris was on the verge of quitting her job. She felt burned out. The day she walked to the office to hand in her notice, she picked up an envelope with a return address from Sharon G. Flake. Stunned, she opened it and read how the students’ words had touched her. “It was like a love letter,” Flake wrote in her response. She said she’d love to talk to the class, and she included her phone number.
Harris called her and explained apologetically that they had no money to put her up or pay a stipend. “No problem. I’ll stay at your house,” Flake said. She drove to Cleveland, and she and Harris hit it off immediately. They stayed up half the night, talking and laughing with her kids.
Flake spent the next day at the school, greeting students from different classrooms, staying for hours to sign books and talking to every kid. “She is the most kind and generous person I know,” said Harris, who has stayed friends with Flake. The experience helped motivate Harris to stay in education and become a literacy specialist.
BATTLING WRITER’S BLOCK
Flake’s success continued, publishing one book after another — seven books from 2001 until 2012, including “Bang!” and “Begging for Change.” It was almost too easy — until one day it wasn’t. The words didn’t flow as easily for the next eight years.
Some writers outline chapters meticulously, but Flake writes from her gut, letting her characters lead. “It’s like being in a parade. I’m not leading the parade, I’m following. I’m letting my characters take me where they want me to go.”
Her mind doesn’t work like other people’s. She’s always losing her keys and getting lost and can’t always remember her mother’s birthday. But what she lacked in those skills, she more than made up for in her emotional connection to the world. She has so much empathy that she says it’s exhausting to watch a basketball game because she’s always feeling bad for the trailing team.
During this period of writer’s block, she couldn’t get out of her head and access those great emotional instincts. Feeling stuck and on the verge of quitting, she went to a hypnotist, but that didn’t work. Then in January 2018, she went to a therapist who works with athletes. She had never worked with a creative client before. Here is where Flake found a path forward.
Just as an athlete can’t control whether they win, only the effort they put in, an author can’t control whether they write a bestseller. “There were days when I was writing and I would literally be shaking and I wanted to cry. I can only control that I show up and do the best I know how.”
One day that year, she went to see her accountant, and he asked, “Why don’t you write a sequel to ‘The Skin I’m In?’”
“Oh, I would never do that. But if I did, it would be about the bully, Char.”
That same day, she started to write the sequel, a young adult novel about the mean girl in the original story. But she made Char sympathetic. “Black girls can be over-sexualized in their depictions and blamed for what happens to them.” She reminds readers that Char is a kid, one who still likes to color, and “trafficking is something that happens to kids.” She also did a lot of research, talking to police, survivors and organizations for victims of trafficking.
She worried that the sequel could never measure up to “The Skin I’m In,” which has sold more than 1.5 million copies. How could she possibly follow up that act? She had to calm herself down at the keyboard. “OK, it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
In the sequel, Maleeka has grown stronger — as did Flake during the same two decades.
“Like Maleeka, the voice in my head had plenty to say, but in the real world, I let a ton of slights pass. But now, in my everyday life, I know who I am and what I bring to the table.”
Flake also learned to be easier on herself. “I finally had to say to myself, ‘You know, Sharon, if you never wrote anything other than ‘The Skin I’m In,’ that would be enough.’”