Each month, we ask distinguished authors or illustrators to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
Beautiful Brown Girls
by Sharon G. Flake
Prior to daughter Brittney’s birth, I was like many fledgling writers—I wrote when the spirit hit me, which meant I could go months without penning a word. After she was born, lightning struck, you might say. I didn’t write every day, but I did take my craft much more seriously. I wrote my first picture book and received my first rejection letter.
When my daughter was old enough, I told her stories about dark brown girls like herself, girls who sailed the skies and saved the world. It was important to me that she saw herself in stories. I also bought books by Just Us publishers and read them to her again and again, and I kept telling her those stories of amazing dark brown girls because the world isn’t always kind to them. Research says some make less money than their light-skinned peers, and lose out in other ways. I saw exactly how one day when my daughter was in third grade. Brittney came home from school and shared that her teacher called on the white kids first, the light-skinned kids second, and the dark-skinned students last. As an eight year old, she was already experiencing colorism.
Thinking about this, and the many stories I’d told my sweet brown beauty, it makes sense that I would eventually write a novel about a girl with dark skin. If I hadn’t given birth to Brittany and really worked at my writing, The Skin I’m In (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, 1998) would never have been written.
Because I write from my gut, I never know where a novel is headed. Like everyone who reads my work, the protagonist’s journey is a page-by-page discovery. Quickly I knew Maleeka was going to be teased about her dark skin, and by the end of the first chapter, I realized the trauma she had endured and how deep the pain was. It would take Maleeka’s indomitable spirit, along with her verbal and writing acumen, to help her find her voice and love herself just as she is. It took a host of adults as well, including a teacher who encouraged her writing talent, her deceased father who left her his poetry and his deep abiding love, and a never-give-up-on-your-kid mother with big aspirations of her own.
The Skin I’m In was only my second attempt at writing a novel. The first was a complete failure. An editor critiqued that first one at a conference I attended. The manuscript was returned to me bloody red, filled with numerous editorial comments. If every experience is meant to teach you something, this one did just that. The sting of that critique stayed with me for years. But so did the lesson. By the time I wrote The Skin I’m In, I knew a few things and did better.
The first editor I sent The Skin I’m In to loved it. Students love to hear me say that. They often gasp. Then I drop the other shoe. The editor did love my work, but felt I needed to do a lot with it before it could be purchased, and with that sent a seven-page critique. I went right to work. After a month of rewriting, I returned the manuscript. The editor still loved it, but with that came a second critique, this time around six pages. I went right to work, again. Months later, I received a call that Disney-Hyperion wanted to publish the novel.
It’s been 20 years since The Skin I’m In was published. There are over a million copies in print, in multiple languages. People often ask how the book remains so relevant. The answer is in the crafting. To avoid dating the book, I stayed away from slang and referencing music or current events. I also try not to use words I believe teens would never speak. In doing so, I’m nearly invisible on the page, and as a result, hardly anything stands between readers and my characters.
These days, when I think about Maleeka Madison and The Skin I’m In, I can’t help but smile. This dark-skinned inner city girl is a voice and face of hope and perseverance around the globe. During an era when hate seems ever increasing, Maleeka’s acceptance helps me remain optimistic. For in her, we see ourselves. Not bad for a character who was created because a beautiful brown girl was born into the world and cast a spell on her mom.
Hear Sharon G. Flake share more backstory on of The Skin I’m In
Listen to Sharon G. Flake pronounce her full name and nicknames
Hear Sharon G. Flake talk about her book Who Am I Without Him?
Learn and explore more of Sharon G. Flake’s other written work
Text and images are courtesy of Sharon G. Flake and may not be used without her express written consent.