Twenty years after the publication of her novel The Skin I’m In, which garnered her the Coretta Scott King–John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Sharon G. Flake revisits her beloved characters Maleeka and Miss Saunders, while giving readers a fuller understanding of Char, the bully who makes Maleeka’s life miserable. In The Life I’m In, Flake explores bullying, human trafficking, and the power of compassion. Flake spoke with PW about returning to familiar characters years later, the pressure to honor her original story, and sharing narratives that depict the diverse experiences of African American youth.
What motivated you to return to these characters from The Skin I’m In more than a decade later?
Students and teachers who loved the book have for years asked me what ever became of Char. I would tell them that I don’t keep up with my characters after I’ve finished the novel. I often read from the books at events, but I’m not thinking about the characters’ next steps. But I will say that, in the last few years, the whole trafficking issue has been more in the news and there has been more done by the government, State Department, and United Nations in terms of trying to eradicate it more proactively, including changing laws around the prosecution of trafficking victims and survivors. I remember saying I would never write a sequel to the book, but, if I did, it would be about Char and about human trafficking because I felt there were elements in her life that would make her vulnerable to something like that, but it wasn’t something I was actually planning to do. Then, one day someone asked me the question again and I answered it the way I’ve answered you and I went home and started writing.
Did you find it difficult to revisit these characters?
Oh, I did, absolutely. For my first couple of drafts [of The Life I’m In] Maleeka and Miss Saunders weren’t even in it. My editor [Andrea Davis Pinkney] said, “Oh, no, Sharon, people love these characters. They’re iconic! You have to put them in there!” To myself, I thought, “My mother didn’t raise no fool!” But, in the second draft, I put them in and I’m so glad I did because they had much more to say and they have such a pivotal role in the story. The reason I didn’t want to revisit them was because I was afraid people would think I got it wrong, which is interesting because I have a novel called The Money Hungry and the follow-up, Begging for Change, but I never had that same fear because I wrote them back-to-back. There are so many people who know this book, who reach out telling me that The Skin I’m In changed their lives, making them writers and teachers. It’s such a touchstone for people, so I didn’t want them throwing stones at me.
Why did you feel it was the right time to continue this story? What did you feel these characters could impart?
I have an interesting writing process, where I don’t know where the story is going when I sit down to write. With The Skin I’m In, I knew I wanted to write about a dark-skinned girl, but that’s all I knew. Then, by the third page, a bully showed up. So, I’m able to follow the story; I’m not leading a parade as much as I’m following one. Obviously, I’m crafting and rewriting as I go, but all I knew when I started The Life I’m In was that I wanted to write about trafficking. I write, research, and interview people all at the same time, trusting the story and the characters—that there are things about these journeys that they know that I don’t know on a conscious level.
There are a lot of girls like Char out in the world, who are African American, Caucasian, Indian, and Native American, who have home lives that impact their journey. Char lost her family. Her sister was doing what she could to make money for the family and it put Char at risk, even though she didn’t realize it. This is a story about a lot of things, including redemption and forgiveness. I’ve been asking people, “Could you forgive someone that bullied you?” And a lot of young people say no. I didn’t like Char in the first book, so I had to figure out how to take someone unlikable and make them a protagonist, making her empathetic for myself and the reader. I gave her attributes I deal with myself and tried to remind readers that Char is a child. It’s easy to forget or say, “Look at that girl over there. It’s her fault. She could walk away.” It’s easy for us to judge Char and make assumptions about her, but I wanted to show her vulnerability. For Black and poor girls, we don’t always see their pain; we can let them flounder and drown and never see it.
The other side is that Char is not an empty vessel. Sometimes because of someone’s home life or experiences, it’s easy to say, “There’s an empty pot, let me fill it.” But Char is full in a lot of ways. She’s been full of anger for years because her parents are dead, she’s being bullied and not succeeding in school, but what this novel shows is that she is also full of strength and courage. I wouldn’t have had the courage at 16 to raise someone else’s child. She fixes up an apartment and is surviving. For all she went through, she’s been given survival skills, and I don’t mean that she can fight. Her survival skills are taking care of a baby, shopping, putting together an apartment, and living on her own. It becomes a problem, of course, because she’s only 16, but she has that strength.
What is your hope for your stories as they make their way into the world?
I always hope that my work does some good on the planet, to show the world how resilient and creative and loved African American young people are, especially urban youth. I tell people that [Black children] are probably the least valued children in this country, not by their communities, but by America. Everything I’ve done has always been to shine a spotlight on those young people and to help people see their full humanity. I’m always thinking that people talk about police officers and how they need more training, but what I think they need is a collection of books by African American authors about Black youth. I thought about it once, calling up the police department and saying, “Let’s start a book club for your people.” And not in the singular, but in the collective; not just reading it at home by yourself where you can think whatever.
And, of course, I write to hear their voices because we don’t always want to hear them. And I say voices because not all African American and Black children speak in the same language. I write in African American English because I want their voices to be heard. I want you to see them, a whole host of young people. When we talk about diversity, it’s about representing the diversity of experience of Black people. I write about urban environments, but, if you really look at those stories, there are all types of experiences represented.
The Life I’m In by Sharon G. Flake. Scholastic Press, $18.99 Jan. 5 ISBN 978-1-338-57317-6
Correction: The number of years since the publication of The Skin I'm In has been updated.