Sharon Flake: YA Powerhouse

Presentation by Emily Mervis

Sharon G. Flake

Sharon hails from Pittsburgh, and wrote The Skin I'm In while working at her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. She describes herself as "an inner city girl" and still lives in Pittsburgh. Her novels almost exclusively feature young adults dealing with conflicts in the inner-city: poverty, homelessness, drive-by murder, bullying, class stratification, love/ cheating and heartbreak, role models or the absence thereof... She is a prolific YA writer, and everything she writes is highly-anticipated.

Who are her books "for?"

Flake's books are for reluctant readers, or for readers who get bored easily. The plots feature young adults in conflict of every kind and focuses on intense, (melo?)dramatic situations, dysfunctional families and the internal and external struggles of young people in urban environments. Originally, she wrote because there were not many books for African American young adults, and her covers reflect her characters. She wanted to write for children who did not see their lives in the canon, but there is merit even for kids who don't identify with the characters because they don't live in the inner city, because they may relate on a deeper, emotional, human level. Flake addresses race, socioeconomics and issues of self-image in a way that is not preachy, even though it very much could be. She "avoids tidiness," and exposes all the threads of thought that go through a teen's mind, and how certain factors (social, escapist, traumatic) outweigh ethics. Obviously her characters represent distinct niches within "the" African American experience, but they explore the stereotypes in a non-reductive, and in fact complex, gripping, accessible and sympathetic manner. The lexiles of her books range from mid 400s to the 1000s: give these books to the 14-year-old boy who reads at a 4th grade level or the 16-year-old girl who wants to be sucked in to a dramatic world. Flake's books are equally boy- and girl-friendly, with protagonists of both genders. Her teens experience human elements that are equally known to both genders. I would argue that Bang! is a more relevant and psychological read about teen crime, or at least could be paired with, Monster by Walter Dean Myers. Depending on the socioeconomic/geographic environment of a reader, her books could be for someone as young as 11; because graphic violence is a reality for some readers that young, and Bang! does not feature gratuitous violence, but a reflection on how it can destroy young men and their families, but also how the cycle is escapable.

Quotations about Race

  • "As an African American, I grieve, as many of us do, for what is happening to our boys in regards to violence and murder. So it is not such a big leap to take their hurt and give it a face."
  • "I was in a white shopping mall when my book The Skin I'm In first came out, which is about a dark skinned girl that gets picked on, and [a white boy] said, "that's my story" and at first I thought, what? Yeah, a white guy at a white mall, what is he talking about? And that was my first kinda light bulb moment, that this book was bigger than kids who looked like me... And then I got an email from a twenty-four year old Japanese woman...who said she wanted to translate this for her college thesis and I said, what's the connection between you and this thirteen year old black girl, and she said, "I was picked on..." It's opened my eyes up."
Who is Sharon Flake.wmv

Sharon on Social Media, @sharonflake


If your readers like these books below, they may enjoy Flake's, and vice versa.