Flake, S. (1998). The Skin I'm In. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 171 pp.
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Awards: Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book
Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent's character is one many
ALA Best Books for Young Adults
Yalsa Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers
New York Public Library Top Ten Books for the Teen Age
I loved this book! It's the story of a young black girl in middle school named Maleeka. Maleeka is a typical adolescent girl complete with all the insecurities. She lives with her mother who is struggling to rebuild her life after the loss of her husband, Maleeka's father. The mother is depressed, but maintains interest in Maleeka throughout the story.
Maleeka's character is one girls can relate to. She's smart, capable, and caring. She does have issues which cause her to struggle such as her skin color, poor self esteem, loss of a parent, and poverty. Her friends are also vivid characters and they torment Maleeka daily about her appearance. Too skinny, too smart, too ugle, and way, way, too BLACK! Surprisingly, most of her tormentors share her skin color. However, her skin color is much blacker than theirs so the issue of bias against skin tones is presented for the reader to consider and reflect upon.
Maleeka's new teacher is Miss Saunders. Miss Saunders shocks all students when she appears the first day of school because she suffers from a rare skin condition which has disfigured one half of her face. Miss Saunders, no stranger to prejudice based on appearances, discusses her condition with the students to alleviate at least some of the questions and comments, but it's to no avail. She gives the class an assignment that will eventually lead Maleeka to find herself. The assignment is to "slip into the skin of someone else" by pretending to be someone else. Students must write about their life and document events as if those events were actually happening. Maleeka takes the idea and runs. Her imaginary character is Akeelma, a young black slave girl chained in the hold of a ship headed across the the ocean to the slave market. Diary entries record Akeema's thoughts and emotions as she makes the nightmare trip.
While keeping this diary and dealing with Akeelma's imaginary problems, Maleeka's own internal struggles begin to the appear on the page. The diary becomes a a means for Maleeka to work through her issues and to become the person she wants to be which is the person she actually is already inside.
The Skin I'm In is well written, highly interesting, and very insightful. It would be a great book for students in the middle school range because it deals with issues of concern in their world. Bullying, peer pressure, self esteem, tolerance, and growing up are just a few. Both boys and girls could connect to the this book because of the diversity of characters in Maleeka's life and because of the situations she experiences. I would recommend it to middle school aged students and above. Some of the situations and the language is not appropriate for a younger audience.