Between hormones and high school, being a teen-ager is already a tough job. But when gangs run the neighborhood, money comes hard, and STDs are as common as they are unmentioned, adolescence becomes an even greater challenge. The media offers no guidance -- particularly for young men of color, who on TV and movie screens are typically on the wrong side of the law. And for all the angsty teen literature out there, little of it speaks to kids living such lives.
After writing several books on girls, including Coretta Scott King Award-winner The Skin I'm In, Pittsburgh author Sharon Flake's newest work explores the growing pains of urban boys.
Candid and empathetic, You Don't Even Know Me reveals boys' vulnerability, ignorance and maturity in pitch-perfect poems and short stories. Tyler can't commit to the girl of his dreams; James journals his personal struggle after his twin's suicide; and Tow-Kaye waffles between freedom and duty as he weds his pregnant teen bride.
Conscious of the complexities of adolescent logic, Flake embraces her characters' flaws. As Jeffrey, a troublemaker from a broken family, ruins his relationship with his aunt, we hear his inner confusion, regret and the stubbornness even he can't seem to justify.
These blemishes infuse the book with engrossing humanity, rather than preachiness and stereotype. "I think that we see young men on TV in a very narrow place," says Flake. "That's young people of color, period. I wanted to be able to tell the rest of the story."
Having that story on bookshelves not only shines a light on these youths, but encourages reading by a demographic that frequently dismisses it. "Everyone wants to see their face on a book," Flake says. "I think boys will read when they find a connection and find you speaking to them. Before kids jump into the canon, they have to like reading; when you get kids reading and finding their place in the story, they say, 'Hey, where to next?'"
Flake, a Pitt alum and current East Sider, speaks and signs books on Sat., Feb. 6, as part of the Black, White & Read All Over children's-book lecture series. She uses literature as a space for dialogue amongst children and adults. As in life, adults play a big part in the lives of Flake's characters. "Kids don't exist in a vacuum," says Flake, who formerly worked with foster children. "Kids are in relationships with adults all the time. And those relationships can work for them or against them."
Sharon Flake at Black, White & Read All Over 10:30 a.m. Sat., Feb. 6 (reception follows). Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $8-10. www.pittsburghlectures.org or 412-622-8866