First of all, shout-out to Simmons College, home of the amazing Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and also the fine institution which gave me my graduate degrees, which links to my blog at the end of their poll on what ARE the most feminist YA reads. (Link for voting removed, thanks to a friend tipping me off it’s just for within the Simmons community- sorry about that, guys!) And thanks, too, for reminding me through that that I should be updating this blog, rather than just reading books and venting at people on GoogleTalk with a lot of caps lock and exclamation points (and maybe freaking out a little bit about the YA Mafia- you guys won’t all cast me out of the field forever for trying to start some critical discussion, right?).
Title: THE SKIN I’M IN by Sharon Flake
Brief summary: Maleeka is having a hard year. Even in her inner-city middle school, she stands out for being poor, and other students mock how dark her black skin is and how good her grades are. Maleeka befriends a popular girl in exchange for doing her homework, and she feels like she’s getting by, but a new teacher with an odd facial blemish and a lot of self-confidence challenges the way she perceives her world.
Why I Think It’s On the List: Maleeka is such a fantastic character. She’s strong, not in the “physical altercations” way that so many YA novels tend to see as a positive way to show that the character has inner strength, or even in the “decisive in her choices” way. Maleeka sometimes has a hard time standing up for herself, but the brilliance of this text is that the reader never once feels like she doesn’t have liquid steel inside her, just waiting to be discovered. I never once doubted that Maleeka would come into her own in this novel, because all the pieces are there.
Beyond that, HOW GREAT was it to see such a fantastic support system for her? In a lot of novels, the protagonist feels like she’s fighting against the world, and this is no different, but as readers, we can see that the world she’s fighting isn’t necessarily trying to get her down. Maleeka has incredible role models in her mother and in Miss Saunders, who want what’s best for her and aren’t willing to let her settle. Other kids her age, including her best friend Sweets and her classmates Desda and Caleb, offer strength as well, and even minor characters like Tai flesh out this world that’s just waiting for Maleeka to see how strong she really is.
In addition, I think it’s pretty brilliant that maybe the best role model for Maleeka is one she creates herself: Akeelma, the slave girl whose diary Maleeka writes.
And while this maybe goes without saying, this is also a positive portrayal of a young black woman, and that in and of itself is worth noting.
Wait, But… First of all, I’m not sure this fits my standards for young adult. The length, the font size, the character age, and the reading level all indicate “upper middle grade” to me. I won’t quibble, though; this would be a solid novel for hi-lo high school readers, too. For the sake of brevity, I’ll grant this one as very young YA.
The other problem I see is more pressing, and it kills me that this is the first book I’m confronting it on here, because I’ve seen it in a lot of books and it’s rare that it happens in a book with so many positive female characters. In fact, it happened less in this book than in a lot of others, but it feels so prevalent lately that I can’t not discuss it.
A female antagonist whose motivations the reader can’t understand takes away from the feminist message in an otherwise very solid feminist novel. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a novel is only as feminist as its least-dimensional female characters.
If there AREN’T secondary female characters, that’s problematic too, of course. No matter how amazing and multi-dimensional the protagonist is, if she’s the only woman in a universe comprised of men, it’s going to make her seem like the exception that proves the rule- the token chick, who is the only one to be cool enough to hang with the guys. I think at this point, most people know that, hence the Bechdel test and a lot of other important strides forward in discussing female-containing media.
But I think something we tend to overlook is that even if a complex female character is surrounded by other women, and even if they talk, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the text is feminist by default.
The thing in THE SKIN I’M IN that keeps making me hesitate is Char. Maleeka does Char’s homework, and in exchange gets to borrow her clothing and bask in the prestige of her friendship. It’s a fantastic portrayal of the internal back-and-forth in middle school, where “right” and “wrong” sometimes have to take a backseat to what is and isn’t manageable in the social minefield of adolescence. But as a reader, I kept wondering why Char did any of the things she did. The question What’s in it for Char? took me out of the story.
Some of this is simply my perspective. I was always that kid who never cut class and panicked at the idea of disappointing adults; Char is a character whose motivations will never mesh with my worldview. But beyond that, I wanted to know why. She has a hard home life, which is doled out just enough to keep the reader engaged: her parents died two years ago; she lives with her older sister; she’s failed seventh grade twice already. In one chapter we see Char at home during her sister’s party, bringing drink refills to her sister’s friends in exchange for cash. All of that informs the narrative. But it doesn’t answer my question of why.
Char goes beyond being an antagonist and into being a villain. And I don’t fully see how what she does benefits her, aside from a short-sighted need for revenge. I don’t see any of her long-term goals, and without that, she’s just the figure of a mean girl looming over everyone.
That figure- the mean girl who just wants to make your life a living hell- is one that I’m sure every kid who’s ever entered a junior high is very familiar with. But it’s also one of the pernicious stereotypes of women: that bitch who’s cruel for the sake of being cruel, who doesn’t have much personality beyond her thirst for the shame and humiliation of those who try to steal her stage.
I refuse to believe there isn’t something more to her. And it really bothers me that, even in otherwise really feminist-positive YA literature, the caricature of an evil bitch is something that doesn’t necessarily need to become more fleshed out.