The Skin I’m In

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.


About Amy S.

I have my bachelor's from Bryn Mawr College and my masters' from Simmons. I enjoy children's literature, reality television, cut-paper art, naps, and Comic-Con. When I grow up I want to live in the giant library from Beauty and the Beast, especially if they install wi-fi in there.
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10 Responses to The Skin I’m In

  1. Mosca says:

    I have not read this book, so please assume I am talking out of my ass. But your comments on villains/bullies without motivation really interest me. The phenomenon extends way beyond YA lit, of course, and one of the ongoing topics of discussion in the college Shakespeare course I’m teaching is how nuanced and appealing many of the villains are, to the point where sometimes you can’t tell who the good guys really are. So that might be a factor: when the bullies are mean for the sake of being mean, it’s really easy to side with the persecuted narrator. If the bully has a point, or even a reason, many YA narrators might come off as pathetic (see: Rachel Berry).

    Because I think most YA writers work with the assumption that their readers will identify more with victims of bullying than with perpetrators, even though most junior high and high school kids find themselves on both sides of that line from time to time. What worries me is, when bullies in fiction are depicted as pure villains with no rational motivation, then kids in that vast middle of the junior high social structure don’t see themselves reflected. The reasons for bullying are usually immature and shallow, but they’re still reasons – and, I mean, a 14-year-old is going to have a lot of immature reasons for doing stuff. It sounds like if Char had a voice, her reasons would be that Maleeka is smart, and Maleeka is rewarded at school for that, and Char needs to “correct” that to cover up the fact that she admires it/is jealous of it. If young readers never see fictional kids making decisions based on that kind of reasoning, and by extension don’t get to look at fictional examples of why that behavior is not the best, there’s a perspective lost there. And also, if you’re a “great middle” kid like I was, you start to think the protagonists of a lot of books you’re supposed to like are losers, because what are they doing wrong to have NO friends? You learn when you’re older that they weren’t doing anything wrong, obviously, but at the time, I found it hard to relate to those super persecuted narrators. Sounds like I would have been okay with Maleeka, since she appears to have a group of friends and not be totally isolated – but when you’re in that social position, at that age, you’re almost always sometimes the perpetrator, even if you’re generally a nice kid.

  2. Deborah Kaplan says:

    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.

    I think this is something we will come back to again and again in this blog. It’s good to have a rule of thumb, the rules of thumb are only going to act as guidelines, not hard and fast rules.

    • rebecca says:

      I wonder if we could set up a permanent page, linked on the side, where Amy could paste quotes that we think we’ll want to be coming back to again and again?

  3. Akilah says:

    Yes! I said the same thing in my review, basically, only with less fancy words.

  4. hope says:

    Very late to the party, I know, and I’m talking out my ass like Mosca, because I haven’t read The Skin I’m In. But this phrase bothered me: In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a novel is only as feminist as its least-dimensional female characters.

    Yes, Char could have been more nuanced, but that might have changed the book from one where you identify whole-heartedly with the protagonist to one where you see all sides of a problem. Those are two different kinds of books and I’d argue that both can be done and done well, or done poorly. One is not better than the other. What’s bad though is taking one kind of book, the more simplistic good guys/bad guys book and sticking in a little of the nuance from the other kind of book. Do that and what you may have is a book that is more feminist, but over all a much worse book. Then what have you gained?

    I’m struggling with this because I see a lot of crtiques these days, especially feminist ones, where people suggest things that would make a book more feminist, but would ruin the storytelling. People seem to be applying a check-the-box ideology without much appreciation for what a story IS and how it works. I can’t make up my mind if I think that a book that is not feminist can still be “good” as far as my own judgement is concerned. But I think a book that is not good, even if it checks off every ideological box, is *not* feminist. It’s just a bad book.

    • But I think a book that is not good, even if it checks off every ideological box, is *not* feminist.

      I don’t think I can agree with this. I mean, moving away from feminism for a minute, to LGTB issues, let’s look at Heather Has Two Mommies. Two facts about the books seem inarguable to me:Its representation of a perfectly normal child with two lesbian moms in a picture book was important, vital, and changed the face of representations of queerness in English-language children’s literature for good.It’s a really, really, really bad book.
      So I do think a book can serve a political purpose, and serve it well, while still being bad.

      (As a separate issue, I think that the book could have been just as good had Char being a more nuanced character. The general rule I find that only a very small number of books would be hurt by adding nuance to the villains, and most of those are fairytales or parodies. In my teaching my students often come to the conclusion that one of the key things that weakens an argument made in the book is the reader’s realization that the villain is a strawman.)

    • rebecca says:

      Storytelling is key, and I don’t think anyone’s arguing for ideology to outrank it. But writing fiction is complex, and at every turn there are a zillion different words to choose from, a zillion different possible nuances and possible characterizations. I think it’s awfully hard (impossible?), while talking in hypotheticals like this, to know which of the roads-not-taken would have ruined the storytelling.

      • hope says:

        Thank you for the response. I’ll keep thinking. Deborah, I see your point. I would say that Heather succeeds in its political purpose, but doesn’t succeed as a book. So, it’s a really good tract, maybe.

        Rebecca, I think we can say that a certain story is tight enough that there’s little room for alteration without breaking it down and rewriting from scratch. According to Deborah, that’s not true in this case.

        I read your response to Barbara Ann Porte some time ago and I’ve been thinking about FP in relation to this topic. I feel more comfortable saying that a book is good, but not Fat Positive than I feel saying a book is good, but not feminist, and I’m still thinking through the implications of that.

  5. katie says:

    “the skin im in”

    this book is about racism and a girl being bullied by all the kids in the school and the teacher not liking her because of her skin color and all the white kids think that her skin color changes the way people should think of her just because she is blck and the only black person and so she changes her look because aside from her skin color that is not the only thing she gets teased about she also gets teased about her clothes because she wears homemade clothes that her mom makes for her because their family does not have the money so then when her mom gets alittle more money she lets her daughter go to the store or mall to buy some better clothes and some lipgloss for her because her mom notices what she is going though in the school because it is an all white school so when she goes and buys the clothes and wear them to school the boys in the school treat her differently they only like her and dont tease her if she is looking pretty and dress kinda whitish like the white people in that school with their fansy clothes and so then when she goes back the way she was in the begginning of the book this one boy asked her out because he like her for her and not because her skin or the way she dress so then she realized that the way she looks is her style and noone should care how she looks because she is not them and she doesnt care what they say because it is only words and they shouldnt do any damage to her also she loves her mom and loves the clothes she make for her but then her famliy gets richer and then she dress pretty with store brought clothes and she only hangs out with that one boy that stuck by her the entire way in the teasing and in the liking he wouldnt stop helping heer out

  6. katie says:

    you people are just talking dialog and this is what the story is really about and this is my point people just need to keep converstions on the real topic the book of “the skin im in”

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