Then Miss Saunders arrives at Maleeka's school. She's different too, but she doesn't let anyone tell her who to be. And she doesn't think Maleeka should either.
The Skin I'm In is a book with emotional impact. It's a small volume - the edition I read clocked in at 188 pages - but it packs a surprisingly hard punch. Told through the eyes of Maleeka Madison, it's the story of a teen girl who is suffering at the hands of her classmates. Rejected, taunted and treated with contempt, Maleeka is hassled about everything - but most painfully, the dark black shade of her skin.
Reading The Skin I'm In, I was instantly struck by the presence of the novel's main character. Within a few pages, I felt that I was truly experiencing events as Maleeka did. I became her. For such a short book, this is no mean feat on the part of Sharon G. Flake. From the first page Maleeka's voice is raw and honest and you know that as a narrator she is telling it exactly like it is. Not that she can be that upfront with her classmates: knowing that she's a freak in their eyes, she feels forced to let herself be put down and used by bully Charlese in exchange for a small amount of protection. Although Maleeka tries to be strong and to stand up for herself against her peers, her words betray the hurt and isolation that she's feeling. And for the reader, that close connection means that they don't just read about these emotions, they feel them too.
I'm sometimes dubious about novels that try to tackle the complex and painful subject of bullying. I don't think teens want to read a book that pretends to have all the answers, and neither do I. Thankfully, The Skin I'm In doesn't patronise the reader. The message of this book is not only about making sure that others' treatment of you doesn't make you hate yourself, but also that it doesn't stop you from being who you want to be. In contrast to Maleeka we also meet John-John McIntyre, the smallest seventh grader who also happens to have skin as black as hers but hassles her relentlessly about how dark she is. Ultimately, his treatment of Maleeka doesn't define her - but her treatment of him does. Although I did feel that more attention could have been given to the way the external conflict was resolved, Maleeka's inner journey is portrayed convincingly and with real depth of emotion.
The Skin I'm In also raises the theme of internalized racism. Although at least some of the classmates behind Maleeka's suffering are black or biracial themselves, there's a definite sense that she's treated as a freak because she is the darkest. While I hated characters like Charlese and John-John when they were treating Maleeka so badly, it was easy to see that they don't feel that comfortable in their own skin either. And though there's a happy ending on the horizon for Maleeka, we're left feeling that the one character whose future won't be so bright is the one who can't find self-acceptance - or the acceptance of others that goes with it.
The Skin I'm In is an insightful, powerful and hopeful novel. It's difficult to read at times, simply because it's painful to share the kinds of emotion that Maleeka feels at the hands of her tormentors. However, the journey is worthwhile and truly moving. I'd urge all readers to pick this one up.