Flake's new historical novel was inspired by her 96-year-old father, John.

By Cristina Rouvalis

In her groundbreaking novel, “The Skin I’m In,” Sharon G. Flake created the character of Maleeka Madison, a girl who is bullied for the dark color of her skin. Published in 2000, the book‘s authentic portrayal of a Black teenager’s feeling of otherness resonated with young readers and inspired other children’s authors of color.

Twenty-three years and 12 books later, the Pittsburgh author has come out with “Once in a Blue Moon” about 11-year-old John Henry, a Black youth growing up in the Jim Crow South. The new historical middle-grade novel was inspired by her 96-year-old father, John.

Like the author’s father, John Henry is smart and loves astronomy. But the fictional John Henry suffers from anxiety and refuses to leave his North Carolina house because of his guilt over the near-drowning accident of his mother. To soothe himself, he climbs up on the top of his roof with his twin sister, Hattie Mae, where they take imaginary journeys into the night sky together.

Hattie Mae convinces him that he should finally return to the scene of the accident the night of a blue moon when anything can happen and bad luck can change. Though the twins and a friend confront racists and bullies on their way there, they also have fun along the way. 

“Once in a Blue Moon” by Sharon G. Flake.

“You can see the impact of Jim Crow, but I wanted to put the lens on the family. It’s my tribute to all those people who grew up in the Jim Crow South but still may make space for family and still have love in spite of it,” Flake says.

This is the first time Flake has written a novel in verse, short poetic chapters that get inside the mind of an 11-year-old boy. The 67-year-old author says,  “I think I am eternally like a child, somewhere between 16 and 10.”

Gianna Lakenauth, an editor for her book at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, agrees. “She doesn’t speak down to kids. She’s very authentic in the way she chooses to tell a story. She is constantly doing school visits and speaking to kids and she understands their voice.”

Though the story deals with heavy subjects such as anxiety and trauma, Flake’s choice to tell it in verse imbues it with lightness. 

“There is a lyrical quality to it as well,” Lakenauth says.

Flake, who won the Coretta Scott King Book John Steptoe New Talent Award for “The Skin I’m In,” has signed a deal for two more books in verse centered around these twins – the second book from Hattie Mae’s perspective and the last one from John Henry again. 

“The book is a tribute to my father,” she says during a visit with him at his North Philadelphia house where she and her five siblings grew up. Flake moved here to attend the University of Pittsburgh.

Her father was the “pipe man” at Philadelphia Gas for 36 years, laying pipes in the streets and digging ditches. He grew up in North Carolina but moved North at age 13, completing only the eighth grade. But he had perfect recall and read three newspapers a day. 

Flake once asked him what he would have done for a living if he could have done anything, and he said he would be an astronomer. 

Without the influence of him and her late mother, Roberta, both great storytellers, she says she would not have been an author. 

Flake stands in front of a mural depicting poet Amanda Gorman. Photo by Melvin Sharpe courtesy of Sharon G. Flake.

Flake says she drew on her own experience with anxiety to create the character of John Henry. Despite her wild success – “The Skin I’m In” has sold 1.5 million copies on five continents – Flake has been gripped with anxiety about her writing. In school visits, she has confessed to her young audiences her insecurities about her challenges with grammar and spelling.

Some kids, in turn, have confessed their own anxieties in front of their classmates – that they had been bullied for being gay or for the way they looked. 

“I think I made a safe space for them. They made a safe space for me too. The things I told those children, I hadn’t told anyone.”

Not only does she have a three-book deal for John Henry and Hattie, but she also is coming out with a picture book, “You Make Me Sneeze,” in February 2024. There is also a third book in “The Skin I’m In” series told from the perspective of John-John, a bully, in the works.

Flake will read from “Once in Blue Moon” at a book launch party at Stories Like Me in Squirrel Hill at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 30. Photo courtesy of Sharon G. Flake.

All of her books show a more nuanced portrayal of Black communities than the crime-ridden images often depicted in the media. 

“I come from a neighborhood in North Philadelphia that is sort of like the Hill [District] and sort of like Homewood. When you come from those areas, people have their thoughts about you. They don’t always think of genius and brilliance. But humor and fun and family also reside there, and I’m always trying to say that in my books.”

Flake will read from and discuss “Once in Blue Moon” at a book launch party at Stories Like Me in Squirrel Hill at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 30.  Cost is $3 for general admission and $20.99 to reserve a copy of the book. Register at www.eventbrite.com.  

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in national magazines including Hemispheres, PARADE, Esquire.com, AARP the Magazine, Fortune.com, Inc., and Parents.

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