of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Critics and reviewers often reserve their highest praise for literature that they claim expresses some lofty or universal truth about the human condition. Over the past thirty years, however, attentive readers have called this idea into question: what constitutes a universal truth about human experience?, and if such a thing doesn't necessarily exist, then whose truth gets to bear the name? A simple thought experiment can be quite revelatory: what if Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins had been a girl? What if Charles Ingalls had been Asian or Latino? What if the Watsons had been white? How might their stories have been different? For the most part, stories that are read as universal tend to be stories that embrace primarily white, masculine values of assertive individuality, exploration, quest and conquest, and courage represented as violent and victorious responses to conflict. Girls and minority characters are supporting players at best, and victims at worst.
As a result, minority readers and girls are often asked to identify with characters enacting the truths and values of culture alien to their own experience. If they then adopt those values as their own, and the material conditions in which they live make acquiring them difficult or impossible, then their experience is deemed inferior by comparison. Alternately, they become what feminist critic Judith Fetterley calls "resisting readers," readers who know that they cannot accept the truths of what they are reading as universal, and therefore have to adopt a detached or adversarial stance toward what they read. Even books by women and minority authors often have the subtle markers of address that indicate they are writing for outsiders, that they are attempting to explain or defend a system of values that they know are not in the mainstream to some "universal" (that is, white male) reader.
Sharon Flake offers another option for black girl readers. In her first book, The Skin I'm In, Flake tackles the internal prejudices that a girl with very dark skin encounters in a black community. Maleeka makes what many would consider some pretty bad choices on her path to self-acceptance. She also learns how to stand up for herself in ways that mainstream culture might consider unfeminine. She is helped along by a teacher with a facial birthmark, who has had problems of her own as a strong, assertive black woman in the business world before she decided to face the daily ridicule of wearing a disfigurement in a junior high school.
Flake follows The Skin I'm In with a pair of books about a character named Raspberry Hill. In these books, Money Hungry and Begging for Change, Flake's narrative voice becomes more confident, her plotting tighter, and her characters and conflicts more fully realized. Raspberry has an obsessional relationship with money that has grown out of her fear, occasionally realized, of being homeless; she craves the security that a cash reserve will give her. To the mainstream reader, that might seem an entirely reasonable assumption, but Raspberry's mother recognizes the fragility of money as a site of security, especially when it comes at the cost of alienating Raspberry's neighbors and her "girls." Ultimately, it is one's community in whom one must trust, even when members of that community occasionally prove false, violent, or exploitive.
Most recently, Flake has written a collection of short stories entitled Who am I Without Him?: Stories about Girls and the Boys in their Lives. Here again, the characters make choices that don't necessarily accord with mainstream wisdom, reflecting instead some of the harsher realities of teen life. Flake respects her characters enough to allow them their bad decisions and the consequences that follow, and respects her readers enough to write something other than fairy tales of love conquering all.
The skin Sharon Flake's characters are in goes far beyond the surface; they live in a particular skin of culture that gives them a distinct, recognizable language and a wise, wary style of relating to others--friend, foe, or cautious blend of the two. Moreover, Flake's characters demonstrate a complex way of negotiating values that doesn't depend on anything the dominant culture might acknowledge as universal or divorced from the real world situations in which these characters find themselves. In her work, black girl readers can finally find a voice that speaks their world, without filters, translations, or accommodations for outsiders.
--Karen Coats, reviewer