One person’s antagonist is another’s protagonist. It’s true in life, and also in the award-winning young-adult fiction of Sharon G. Flake.
Charlese Jones, the middle-school bully in Flake’s 1998 classic “The Skin I’m In” is the hero of the award-winning Pittsburgh-based author’s latest novel, “The Life I’m In” (Scholastic).
Char, as it turns out, has been bullied herself. And in “The Life I’m In,” the 16-year-old orphan expelled from three schools is sent down South to live with relatives. But her journey is derailed, horribly, when she’s ensnared by a sex-trafficker.
In her 11 novels, Flake is known for confronting tough subjects, from greed to the impact of gun violence. While she acknowledges “Life” is her “most difficult piece to date,” she added, “I think young people are ready for stuff that we are not always, as adults, ready for them to have.”
Flake was long reluctant to revisit the characters from “Skin,” including Maleeka Madison, the dark-complexioned protagonist; Char, her chief tormentor in seventh grade; and understanding teacher Miss Saunders. After all, the book has sold some 1.07 million copies worldwide and is held dear by loyal readers.
“I didn’t want [the characters] to be back because I didn’t want to touch them,” said Flake. “I was afraid I might mess them up. But my editor kept pushing and pushing, and I’m glad she did, because it became a story about trafficking.”
Flake had been reading for years about human trafficking, the practice of exploiting adults or children for sexual or labor servitude. It’s a bigger problem than you might think. According to a 2017 report by the nonprofit International Labour Organization, some 40 million people were in modern slavery, which includes forced labor, forced marriage, and forced sexual exploitation. The latter category includes nearly 5 million experiencing something like what Char experiences. And one in four victims of modern slavery are children, according to the report.
Flake emphasizes that her novel is meant to educate.
“I think it's an important book,” said Flake. “And I want children and families to read it and talk about some of those topics, and schools and librarians to incorporate it in their curriculums and their libraries.”
Flake certainly got people talking with her earlier books, especially “The Skin I’m In.” Andrea Davis Pinkney, the editor who pulled Flake’s manuscript from the slush pile at publishing house Hyperion all those years ago, said the book broke new ground in the late 1990s.
“No one was talking about issues of complexion, race, identity, self-esteem in girls,” she said at a book-launch event for “Life” held online in January.
Indeed, prominent Black younger authors for children and young adults like Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas have acknowledged Flake’s influence. And the book has now reached generations.
“It resonated with me being a black woman growing up in America at the time, a black teenager growing up in America,” said Brittany Thurman, 34. She read “Skin” as a teenager and as an adult once worked as Flake’s assistant in Pittsburgh. “I could connect to Maleeka, the book’s main character, and that’s not something I really saw in these books that I had around, in the books that I read.”
Audrey Murrell, acting dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Honors College, met Flake when they were both working at Pitt’s Katz School of Business, around the time “Skin” was published.
“I gave copies of ‘The Skin I’m In’ to my nieces, I sent them all copies when it first came out,” said Murrell. “And they’re now adults and professionals and working full time, and so I heard recently from one of them, she said, ‘That was one of my favorite books.’”
Flake, who grew up in Philadelphia, has lived in Pittsburgh since 1973, when she came to study at Pitt. After college, she worked as a counselor for teens at a foster placement agency before returning to Pitt for a public-relations job.
When “The Skin I’m In” was published, she was 42, with a young daughter. Flake has been a full-time writer for years now, with three Coretta Scott King Awards for “outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults” to her credit.
Flake is gratified that her books resonate with all kinds of people around the world. Maleeka Madison might be Black, but many readers who’ve been bullied have told Flake they identify with her, she said. With “The Life I’m In,” Flake has the further goal of raising awareness of the scourge of human trafficking, and the plight of its victims.
“I wanted people to see that these were children,” she said. “That there are a lot of children that are being impacted, and to show their humanity.”
“In schools, in libraries, those young people are everywhere,” Flake added. “We do have to take a moment to see them. When they are being trafficked, sometimes they won’t look at you, right? … You could miss a girl like Char.”
Mild spoiler alert: While “Life I’m In” makes for some wrenching reading, there’s hope for Char.
“It became a story about girls and women, right? Lifting one another up,” Flake said. “In difficult times, it became a story about resilience and second chances.”
[Editor's note: This article has been amended to reflect the correct number of copies sold of "The Skin I'm In." The article previously included an incorrect number.]