With a new book set to publish in February, Pittsburgh’s own young adult author speaks on her success—and what inspired her career.
By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Looking back, Sharon Flake, an internationally recognized top-selling young readers author, says she didn’t always know she wanted to be a writer. In fact, during her days as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, she recalls considering several career paths ranging from being a computer scientist to an accountant. This was until she found her niche in English and writing classes. And while Flake liked writing and felt she was good at it, she still wasn’t ready to commit. Nonetheless, she spent her university years fine-tuning her voice.
“When you are 18 and 19, sometimes you’re not always so logical,” says Flake, 68, whose forthcoming children’s picture book, entitled You Make Me Sneeze!, is being published next month by Penguin Random House. “Somewhere along the line, I discovered that I was good at writing. I looked at some of my notebooks from college and realized [that] I opened up and was earnest and honest in a way that I wasn’t necessarily in my everyday life. When I look back, writing gave me a way to speak about the world at a soul level – and it showed up on the page. And I got validation for that from my professors.”
Women write to me in their thirties and say, ‘Your book changed my life and helped me to feel seen and heard.’
Sharon Flake, author of The Skin I’m In
Still, despite Flake’s love for the craft it would take her a few years to pursue it professionally. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in English, Flake held her share of positions. A Philadelphia native by birth, she came to Pittsburgh for college in the late 1970s and she stayed in the Steel City post-graduation. First, she worked in a youth shelter as a house parent. Following that, she worked with kids in the foster care system. Ultimately, she returned to her alma mater and took a public relations position, eventually becoming Director of Public Relations for Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.
Through the years, Flake kept writing nonfiction during her downtime. When she turned 30, she realized that her writing needed to return to the front burner.
Inspired by the birth of her daughter, Flake’s debut book The Skin I’m In launched her career as a bestselling young adult author in 1998. Pictured here at City Books. Photo Credit: Emmai Alaquiva
Initially, Flake was unsure what to write about. After thoughtful consideration, she decided that she wanted to write about a dark-skinned girl. The final form of that initial desire became The Skin I’m In, a novel published in 1998 that introduces readers to Maleeka Madison, a 7th-grade girl struggling with her self-esteem due to her dark skin. The novel’s exploration of colorism, bullying, friendship, and self-love made it a beloved read for those who related to Maleeka’s experiences. Over time, the novel became a staple in the libraries of adolescents, parents, and teachers alike. An estimated 1.5 million copies of the book are currently in circulation on six different continents.
Writing gave me a way to speak about the world at a soul level – and it showed up on the page.
Sharon Flake, author of The Skin I’m In
Since her debut novel, Flake has published a dozen books, which have all gained praise for providing honest insight into the experiences of Black and Brown teenagers. Some of her titles include The Life I’m In (the sequel to The Skin I’m In), Money Hungry (which focuses on homelessness), and her latest book published in July, Once in a Blue Moon (which focuses on a young boy in the Jim Crow South and was inspired by her 96-year-old father). Still, to this day, Flake says, the novel that fans often reach out to her about is the book that began her career as a professional author.
“I have some of the most, I don’t want to say, loyal readers because it’s more than that,” Flake says. “I have women who reach out to me after they have had babies to say, ‘I just bought The Skin I’m In for my daughter.’ And women write to me in their thirties and say, ‘Your book changed my life and helped me to feel seen and heard.’”
In the age of social media, some authors prefer to limit how much interaction they have with their fanbase. In contrast, Flake shares that she has reached out to some of the girls and women who have written to her. She recalls one exchange that stands out. While going through old emails, Flake came across one from a 12-year-old fan who had written to her some time ago. Flake decided to ask how she was doing years later. In the end, Flake decided to take the fan out to lunch since she had relocated from New York to Pittsburgh. Flake told BlackPittsburgh.com that she was touched to hear the now-adult reader say that reading The Skin I’m In changed her life.
A three time winner of the Coretta Scott King book award, Sharon Flake published Once in a Blue Moon last summer. Photo Credit: Emmai Alaquiva
Throughout her quarter-century career, Flake has received her share of acclaim from fans and her share of awards. Although she’s grateful to have recognition in the form of the Coretta Scott King Award thrice over, the YWCA Racial Justice Award, and the Young Adult Library Service Association Award for Best Book for Young Adults, what brings her the most joy is knowing that she’s been able to help Black children feel seen. Her books, she notes, have also empowered readers from various racial and ethnic backgrounds that relate to the universal themes in her work.
“I write about Black children from the city, and people don’t always value and appreciate those children,” Flake says. “So, to write books that speak to them (in a way that they say even when they become adults is life transforming) is to me a gift from God. And it’s great to have other cultures also say, ‘Hey, I don’t look like that person, but I’m struggling with my self-esteem too and your books helped me.’”
Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected] and you can follow her on Twitter @AtiyaWrites.