The imagination knows no carbon footprint. Young-adult author Sharon Flake has been living and writing in Pittsburgh since 1973 while her work has traveled worldwide. When I meet her in the Hill District's Carnegie Library, she describes a girl who bought her debut novel in London and translated it into Japanese for her dissertation: "She sent me loads of Japanese candy." Later, Flake mentions a class in Thailand that Skyped her recently with questions about the same book.
"I chose The Skin I'm In as a class text because of social issues apparent in Thai society," writes Susan Scolyer, who teaches at Bangkok's Harrow International School, via email. "Thais can be somewhat prejudiced with regards to color and race in my opinion."
The story of 13-year-old Maleeka Madison coming to terms with her skin color is the best selling of Flake's novels, and is still finding new and diverse readers 14 years after it was first published. She has written seven subsequent books tracking the life experiences of urban youths, most recently Pinned, released in October by Scholastic Press.
Flake has two million books in print, and she's gotten there by not compromising her subject matter.
"I am known for not shying away from tough things," says Flake, 57. The University of Pittsburgh graduate and former foster-home counselor regularly does author appearances around the U.S. "I assume young people can handle hearing about biracial relationships and homelessness."
It's not just Flake's topics that distinguish her books, it's the manner in which she relates them. "One of the things I do exceptionally well is I write the way young people speak," Flake states. "I write in and out of dialect."
"I'm like Superman when I get Charlese's clothes on," narrates Maleeka in The Skin I'm In. "I got a new attitude, and my teachers sure don't like it none."
Flake's vibrant use of vernacular appears deceptively effortless. But it can change how kids think about reading.
"There are some adults that write YA materials, and you can tell an adult has written this," Hill District teen-and-children's librarian Andrea McNeill tells me. "Sharon's characters are real. I hear kids having the same conversations they have in her books here around the computers."
Speaking with the library's "Tween Scene" book club, Flake thrives. With a group of boys and girls roughly equal in number, she's as frank as she is with me afterward, if not more so. "I've told young people as an audience things my friends didn't know; about being scared, being insecure, high school, whatever!" she tells me. They're discussing her second novel, Money Hungry, so Flake details exactly how much of the book's cover price goes to her — not a lot, really.
NyRaia, 11, sits in on our interview and probes Flake with her own questions. The Phillips Elementary student confesses that since meeting Flake she's decided to be a writer herself. "Because you told us all these things about writing. It looks like it will be fun and helpful to other kids," she mumbles shyly, her hand covering her mouth. Flake hugs her. "That's the best part of my job." she tells me covertly. "The thing that I've heard more than once — and I've heard across ethnic groups — is that ‘I hated to read and then I read your work.'"
Her new novel, Pinned, is narrated in part by a struggling reader. "We have a problem in this country with literacy and young people," Flake says earnestly. "Everyone wants to see themselves in a book. You need to get stories out there about Latinos, Asians and African Americans."
However, Flake doesn't write about groups, but rather about unique individuals. The academically challenged Autumn of Pinned is also her school's star wrestler. And top student Adonis, who narrates the book's other half, happens to be in a wheelchair. He's arrogant and uncompromising, and the pair share a palpable chemistry.
"You're looking at two people who have disabilities. Autumn's is in terms of her reading," Flake says. "Adonis is very confident and very certain about who is. When he showed up as a character, I thought: ‘Wait a minute, can I write about disabled people?' But so much of who he is is not about the wheelchair."
It recalls what Flake told the book group earlier. "Why did I give the heavy girl a boyfriend?" she asked them. "Because fat people need love too," said one girl quietly. Flake makes her repeat it loudly, affirming the phrase in all its bluntness.
"My goal is always to change people's minds about what they think about people," she told the students. "We make assumptions. As a writer I get to say: Here's the rest of the story."