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'The Skin I'm In' Turns 20, But The Coming-Of-Age Story Still Endures

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh author Sharon Flake published several novels after her debut, "The Skin I'm In," but the book continues to be one of the best-selling.

Maleeka Madison can’t catch a break. She’s too tall, too smart, and her skin’s too dark -- life is hard for the 13-year-old protagonist of Sharon Flake’s iconic novel, The Skin I’m In.

Since its publication in 1998, the book has sold more than 1 million copies and is a staple of elementary and middle school libraries. Flake said she thinks the novel has endured because Maleeka's insecurity and feeling that she’s never “good enough” resonates with readers.

“So many of us struggle with the skin we’re in,” Flake said. “We’re comparing ourselves to other people, someone is bullying us, we’re looking at ourselves saying, ‘we just don’t measure up.’”

Readers see Maleeka’s struggles in their own lives; especially in the challenges she faces as a black teenager. Flake said recent social movements like #MeTooand #BlackLivesMatter show discussions around race and empowerment are more relevant than ever.

“[Those movements] are all about finding your voice and being able to speak your truth,” Flake said. “I feel as if Maleeka’s been doing that for a long time.”

Since the book’s publication, Flake said people have come up to her and talked about seeing themselves in each character, including the antagonist -- a bully named Charlese. In those moments, Flake encourages readers to find their allies, the people who will help them through tough times.

“When we understand that we’re worth saving, it says something about the worth and the value that we put on ourselves,” she said.

Many of the early readers of The Skin I’m In are now in the 30s, Flake said, and often express how much the book meant to them as young people of color. Some even send her college essays they’ve written about the novel’s impact.

“They’re all about how Maleeka in the book changed their life,” Flake said. “[They write] ‘I felt small, I felt little, people teased me because I was dark.’ I got the book and it just turned everything around.”

Disney has released a special edition of The Skin I’m In for the 20th anniversary and Flake will be reading excerpts from the book at the Barnes & Noble in the Waterworks on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 2 p.m.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.