27 8 / 2014
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Award-winning author Sharon G. Flake
I love this business. I’ve been in it for over sixteen years. I have written nine novels for young readers, most of which feature strong, straight-ahead African American girl protagonists.
When my first novel, The Skin I’m In was published in 1997, it was hailed for the distinct voice and spot-on insight of its main character, Maleeka Madison, who is being bullied in the novel and confronted with issues of colorism. In Begging for Change, my main character Raspberry Hill is a girl who knows what she wants and needs and goes for it by using her wits as well as her entrepreneurial skills. In Pinned, my most recent novel, Autumn is a teenager who exhibits her strength as the team’s star wrestler, despite her struggles in school. Autumn is strong, bold, courageous and open-minded. I receive letters from kids who want to be just like Maleeka, Raspberry, and Autumn – kids who are outspoken, resilient, creative, and aspire to become strong women once they’re grown.
But it seems that smart, outspoken, straight-ahead African American girls in books are still frowned upon by gatekeepers and those who serve up books to kids. In my latest novel, Unstoppable Octobia May, which will publish this fall, ten-year-old Octobia is sent to live in her aunt Shuma’s boarding house where she is given the gift of freedom. Freedom to dream, imagine, explore, question and walk the planet whole and complete.
27 8 / 2014
Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.For the purposes of this response, I propose that we define “diversity” in a more expansive way.
I suggest that “diversity” should mean more than issue based books by authors of color about protagonists of color. (While I believe that these books are still needed, the definition of diversity in the 21st century needs to be broader. I encourage all of you to read Christopher Myers’ excellent Horn Book piece for more on this subject.
Please consider the work of the debut novelists Korean American Ellen Oh and Asian Indian Soman Chainani. They are part of a growing number of authors of color who are breaking boundaries with regard to the diversity of book content and genre.
In Prophecy by Ellen Oh, our heroine is a girl soldier/demon slayer. Oh based her research on Genghis Khan and feudal Korea. Readers may pick up on the nods to Asian history and culture, or they can be content with reading an action packed adventure with a strong heroine.
Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers, is about the friendship of an aspiring writer, Darius and a runner, Twig, set against an urban landscape. Myers sets the standard for challenging himself as a writer and for giving voice to young people, their fears and frustrations, but also their hopes and dreams. But do not be fooled. These are not “just urban novels for urban teens.” Pay more careful attention, dear reader. Myers’ message is about universality.
In The School for Good and Evil, Chainani skillfully upturns our notions of the good, bad and ugly. Readers will find the travails of Sophie and Agatha uproariously funny but I also like to think that the novel offers another perspective, a broader perspective about identity that maybe, you may have taken for granted.
All three novels were acquired with the slightly subversive intention of pushing us along just a little bit farther as readers.