THE LIFE I’M IN by Sharon G. Flake
I often tell my daughter Brittney that had she not been born, there would be no book called The Skin I’m In.
Skin was my first novel.
In 1987, Brittney entered the world, dark brown and beautiful. From the beginning, I made up stories about tenacious, adventurous girls with her hue. Brittney was my child: a Black girl born in a world that often devalues girls like her. But in our home and family, there would be no such thing. I needed her to know that. So, I guess it makes sense that years later, I would write The Skin I’m In. My daughter was seven when I penned the novel.
The Skin I’m In chronicles the life of thirteen-year-old Maleeka Madison, who desperately wants to fit in, but continues to be bullied because of her dark skin and tattered clothing. The Skin I’m In is mainly a Black girl’s story. Yet it has weaved its way into the hearts of millions of young people around the globe–Black, native American, Asian, Caucasian, Latinx, and others who seek to find their voices and to learn to love themselves exactly as they are. I am still surprised by the book’s impact and reach. The book touched so many lives in such profound ways. When The Skin I’m In was published, it was considered groundbreaking; today it is considered a “modern classic,” beloved by generations.
But even with The Skin I’m In’s impact, I never considered writing a sequel or companion novel. I didn’t want to do anything that might diminish the book’s reputation and influence. Then one day, during a conversation with my then-new accountant, I mentioned that The Skin I’m In had turned twenty. He asked if I had thought about writing a sequel. No, I hadn’t. Seconds later, I told him that if I were to write a follow-up novel, it would be from Char’s perspective, and it would deal with human trafficking. Char is the bully who made Maleeka’s life so miserable. Her life is fraught with challenges that make her vulnerable to human traffickers.
The next day I started writing.
Revisiting characters from the The Skin I’m In was not as easy for me as one might think. Educators and teenagers cherish the characters and life lessons served up in the novel. And I was afraid I might mess things up somehow. My early drafts of The Life I’m In didn’t include much about Maleeka or Miss Saunders, the teacher in The Skin I’m In. Then my editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, helped me understand that Maleeka and her teacher were favorites of educators and teens alike. Readers wanted to know how their lives had unfolded. After several drafts, I understood what Andrea meant. Finally, I dove back into those characters. And, oh how glad I am that I did.
Teachers can have a tremendous impact on the lives and futures of their students. That’s why I’m so glad Miss Saunders found her way back into the narrative. I’ve also come to discover that when girls like Maleeka and Char, and supportive women like their teacher Miss Saunders, come together, they form an unshakable circle of support that can carry them each through the toughest times.
As I wrote, it became clear that Maleeka and Char had unfinished business. So, the issue of bullying raised its head once more in The Life I’m In, along with the impact of human trafficking on girls around the globe. For decades readers have asked about Char, wondering why she’s so mean, and what is truly at the heart of a bully. Char is vulnerable and fragile in The Skin I’m In, even if readers don’t recognize it. As the protagonist in The Life I’m In, she enters wounded, grieving the loss of her parents, homeless, and financially strapped. Her circumstances and outlook become even more dire, putting her on the radar of a predator.
In this new novel, I’ve peeled back the layers on Char’s inner world to discover that bullies don’t just appear. They’re mean for a reason. And in this novel, readers will see that bullies can turn over a new leaf.
A GAZE, A SILHOUETTE — A HOPEFUL BOOK COVER
When readers pick up The Life I’m In, I want them to understand what it feels like to be Char, and to live in her world. A big part of helping their understanding is the unique jacket depiction by artist Max Milly, and design by Vice President, Creative Director Elizabeth Parisi. On the cover, Char has dark, piercing eyes that speak. See me, they say. I am your daughter; the girl you tutored after school; the boy who plays baseball with your son, the kid in the hotel lobby–you.
In the world of human trafficking, millions of children like Char are manipulated, sexually abused, and often sold multiple times in one night. Yet, many are invisible to us. Char’s eyes insist that we witness our shared humanity. The purple silhouette on the cover shows Char looking into her future, hopeful. Together the two sides of Char send a powerful message: I am a survivor, determined and resilient. I am hopeful, a kid, sinking but still swimming. See me. Don’t ignore me, please.
Sharon G. Flake exploded onto the literary scene with her internationally acclaimed novel, The Skin I’m In. Since then, she has become a bestselling author and multiple Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner, as well as an NACACP Image Award nominee. Ms. Flake’s many novels include Pinned, Money Hungry, Unstoppable Octobia May, Bang!, Who Am I Without Him? and You Don’t Even Know Me. Her books have received multiple ALA Notable and Best Books for Young Adults citations from the American Library Association and have been hailed among the “100 Books Every Teenage Girl Should Read.” She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Please visit Sharon’s website at sharongflake.com