The Skin I'm In
Sharon G. Flake
Oxford, OUP, 2007, 133p
When a Miss Saunders starts at Maleeka Madison's school, the young protagonist takes an instant dislike to the teacher. She's different from the other teachers and seems to take a special interest in Maleeka, pushing her to read widely and do special extra-curricular projects.
The Skin I'm In is about a young girl trying to work out who she is whilst she is being pulled and stretched by the many demands of her life. She is picked on by her classmates for the darkness of her skin and the clothes stitched together by her mother. She tries to be friends with the class bully, just to avoid being one of her victims, but gets dragged down by this spiteful girl. In school, she is embarrassed to be top of her class, and resents being set extra work and being given additional responsibilities. And at home, her mother is broken by the death of her father, so Maleeka has to fend for herself.
Maleeka is an incredibly complex character, and I love that. She demonstrates the challenges of growing up black in middle school in America. Although many of her classmates are black, Maleeka is more dark skinned than most. I felt ignorant, not having realised this was something a child could be bullied about. Despite being very intelligent and beautiful, Maleeka finds it hard to love herself and feels like an outsider.
Miss Saunders assigned Maleeka to work on a creative writing project, imagining that she is a slave upon a ship bound for America. Through her fictional diaries, Maleeka is able to express her fears and pain, and better come to know herself. She grows in confidence and self-assurance, and learns to accept the skin she's in.
This is a beautiful, reaffirming novel about self-acceptance. Maleeka is an inspiring character, able to succeed in a world that seems to proffer so many obstacles against her. Miss Saunders is the sort of teacher all teachers want to be, and through her, Sharon Flake preaches the fact that there is value in all of us.