Precious directed by Lee Daniels

Bibliographic Information: Daniels, L. (director). 2009. Precious, Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (DVD). Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate.  ASIN: B002VECM4A.  110 minutes, Movie Rating: R.

Plot Summary: Clarisse “Precious” Jones is sixteen, pregnant, illiterate and living a life of unimaginable horror and suffering.  The physical and emotional abuse, that Precious endures at the hands of her mother is so brutally and meanly inflicted, that most viewers will wonder how a person could be so incredibly cruel.  Precious lives with her mother. Her father only appears every so often, and his visits resulted in the rape and impregnation of his daughter Precious.  The depths of abuse and cruelty leveled at  Precious might make another person crumble, but she pushes forward. She keeps trying to make a life for herself, dreaming, in beautifully filmed fantasy sequences, of being a much adored star.  When she is kicked out of her high school for being pregnant, Precious attends an alternative school. There, Precious has a teacher who believes in her students, often when they do not even believe in themselves. At her new school, Precious finally learns to read and write and she literally and figuratively finds her voice.

Critical Evaluation: This film is intense.  I expect that people familiar with the type of abuse and suffering Precious is subjected to, could experience some level of post traumatic stress.  Others, who have been fortunate enough not to have experience with this level of cruelty and brutality will likely find themselves in disbelief.  But, there is something about the acting and directing and scenery and dialogue that forces us to look at Precious’s life and recognize that there are people who suffer in similar ways.  Even those viewers who do not want to believe will be hard pressed not to, given the gritty realism of the film.  There is sadness and such devastating circumstances that viewers could become overwhelmed by emotion, but there is a tempering force.  Precious is strong, sometimes witty and often triumphant, and these moments, make worthwhile the viewer’s endurance of the suffering in the movie.

Critics loudly applauded this film; it received numerous awards and nominations, fifty film organizations nominated Precious for a variety of awards, the film won several of these.  Here are some highlights:

  • The 2010 Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress, Mo’Nique (Won); Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Geoffrey Fletcher (Won); Best Picture, Precious (Nominated); Best Director, Lee Daniels (Nominated); Best Actress, Gabourey Sidibe (Nominated); Best Film Editing, Joe Klotz (Nominated)
  • The 2010 Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Precious (Nominated); Best Performance By An Actress In A Motion Picture – Drama, Gabourey Sidbie (Nominated); Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role In A Motion Picture, Mo’Nique (Won)
  • Independent Spirit Awards: Best Feature, Precious (Won); Best Director, Lee Daniels (Won); Best Female Lead, Gabourey Sidibe (Won); Best Supporting Female, Mo’Nique (Won); Best First Screenplay, Geoffrey Fletcher (Won)
  • NAACP Image Awards: Outstanding Motion Picture, Precious (Won); Outstanding Independent Motion Picture, Precious (Won); Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, Gabourey Sidibe (Won); Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, Mo’Nique (Won); Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture, Geoffrey Fletcher (Won); Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture (Theatrical or Television), Lee Daniels (Won); Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, Mariah Carey (Nominated) and Paula Patton (Nominated); Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Lenny Kravitz (Nominated)

An extensive list of awards and nominations for the film can be found here.

Reader’s/Viewer’s Annotation: Abused and ignored Clarisse “Precious” Jones is sixteen, pregnant, and illiterate.  When she gets kicked out of school for being pregnant, she starts attending an alternative school, with a teacher who believes in her, and her journey toward a life of her own begins.

Information about the Author/Director: In addition to being a director, Lee Daniels is an actor and a film producer.  Notably, he produced the highly acclaimed film Monster’s Ball for which Halle Berry won the Best Actress Academy Award and which won the Best Screenplay Academy Award as well (Lee Daniels, n.d.).

Genres: Drama

Curriculum Ties: Discussions of poverty, abuse, acceptance, self-respect, self-esteem

Reading/Viewing Level/Interest Age: Ages 14 to adult

Challenge Issues: Violence; Emotional Sexual, and Physical Abuse; Mature Language.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.

Why is this film included? While this movie is difficult to watch and painful at times, it also sends a message of hope and the strength of the human spirit.  It is feels frightening real and provides a voice to Precious, and other young women, who deserve to have their voices heard.

References:

Lee Daniels. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Daniels

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Bibliographic Information: Alexie, S. (2009). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Forney, E. (Illus.). New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.  ISBN: 0316013692.  288 pages.

Plot Summary: “My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.” Fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr., called Junior by his friends and family, lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His best, and only, friend Rowdy protects him from kids on the “rez,” who use Junior as a punching bag. He is teased and picked on because he’s skinny, he wears glasses, he lisps, and, according to him, “Everyone on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day.” But, Junior is smart and thoughtful, he’s an aspiring cartoonist, and he has managed to eke out a small amount of hope for his future. He makes the life-changing decision to leave the rez school to attend Reardon, a school 22 miles from the reservation, with only white students in a wealthy, all-white town. Students at Reardon are high achievers, both academically and in athletics. Will Junior’s Indian community feel betrayed by his decision? Will the kids at his new school open their hearts to him? Readers will root for this unassuming, honest, witty and smart protagonist, as he makes his way through the murky waters of growing up and self-discovery.

Critical Evaluation: Alexie’s honest, authentic writing tells Junior’s story with intimacy and feeling.  And while this book reads like a memoir, it is fiction, but heavily based on Alexie’s own life.  Readers get the opportunity to be present for day-to-day life as well as some of the more dramatic moments of Junior’s life, and through it all Alexie’s dry wit and social commentary are meaningful and not at all didactic. The complex issues of race and class intersect, intertwine, and give readers plenty to think about.  Part devastatingly sad, part funny, and part hopeful, this coming of age story provides pause for thought about life’s complexities, as well as some of its most simple, and basic, pleasures.  Alexie’s is an important voice in young adult literature, as there are very few books depicting contemporary Indian Reservation life.  Though Junior is fourteen, the novel’s content is mature enough to keep older teens engaged.  In fact, the many levels of this book would likely be best understood by teens older than the main character.  While the content is often heavy, the writing is accessible for a wide range of reading levels; this book, with its many cartoon illustrations, is enjoyable to read, and could be a great choice for reluctant readers.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the National Book Award

Reader’s Annotation: Junior’s life takes a dramatic turn when he decides to leave the Spokane Indian Reservation school for an all-white school in an affluent town 22 miles away from his reservation home.

Information about the Author: Sherman Alexie is an author, a poet, and a filmmaker.  He has written 22 books, and has received numerous honors for his creative works.  Alexie has a strong voice and does not shy away from controversy (see “Challenge Issues” below). He is a frequent public speaker and an advocate for Native American Youth.

Genre: Issue, Realistic Fiction

Category: Issue: Social Concerns: Racism; Issue: Life is Hard: Multiple and Unique Issues, Outsiders

Topics Covered: Growing up, American Indian, Indian reservation, racism, poverty, discrimination, Bullying

Curriculum Ties: This book would provide plenty to talk about for a high school English or social studies class

Booktalking Ideas:

  • “I think Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family. Can your best friend be more important than your family?” (p. 123)

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 14 to 19

Challenge Issues: This book contains a lot of cursing and references to sexuality.  It also exposes readers to poverty, racism, hatred, sadness and grief, things that some adults feel they need to protect young people from.  Alexie’s own experience of hearing from teens that this book speaks to them and they appreciate its honesty is discussed in his Wall Street Journal Blog piece, entitled Why the Best Kids’ Books Are Written in Blood.  More information about censorship of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian can be found in the Blog of The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association.

Why is this book included? This book is included for several reasons.  1) Authentic American Indian voices are underrepresented in American literature in general, and in young adult literature in particular, so it is important that Alexie’s voice is heard and available for young people to read. 2) It is a great book, funny, poignant, and gives us all a lot to think about.  I enjoyed it a lot and think you will too.  3) Related to #2, it won the National Book Award among other honors and was highly critically acclaimed.

References:

Alexie, S. (2009). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.


Rain is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Bibliographic Information: Leitich Smith, C. (2001). Rain is Not My Indian Name. New York, NY: HarperCollins.  ISBN: 0688173977.  144 pages.

Plot Summary: Cassidy Rain Berghoff knows about loss.  Her mother died when she was eight and her best friend, Galen, just died, on New Year’s Eve, the night before Rain’s 14th birthday.    Rain is a “mixed blood” American Indian, “I’m Muscogee, Creek-Cherokee and Scots-Irish on Mom’s side, Irish-German-Ojibway on Dad’s,” (Leitich Smith, 2001, p. 20).  She lives in a small town in Kansas with her brother and his fiancée and her grandfather.  Her father is in the military stationed abroad.  Living in a small, mostly white, town, Rain has had to face prejudice and stereotyping.  She explains that in school most talk of Native Americans comes up around “Turkey Day,” as she calls it.  Her response?  “I usually get through it by reading sci-fi fanzines behind my text books until we move on to Kwanza,” (Leitich Smith, 2001, p. 13).  This is a young woman who knows who she is and does not let others define her.  With the loss of Galen, Rain has put herself in a self-imposed exile for months, but when anti-Indian prejudice is expressed around Rain’s Aunt’s Indian Camp summer program, Rain has to decide how to respond.  She does so with grace, strength, and sensitivity.

Critical Evaluation: Leitich Smith lets us enter Rain’s world via Rain’s witty, sensitive, voice, and through journal entries at the start of each chapter, that add authenticity to the novel.  The writing is warm and appealing and the story deals with complex real-life issues for which there are no easy answers.  Readers may take the journey with Rain, as she attempts to figure out who she is and what her culture means to her.  This novel gives reader,s who are not familiar with contemporary Native American lives, a window into one family, dealing with every day life, facing anti-Indian prejudice, and celebrating the richness and gifts of their cultures.  Many novels with Native American characters are historic novels, keeping Native Americans locked in the past.  Beverly Slapin of Oyate sums up the book’s coverage of Native American issues, “Smith (Muscogee/Creek) deftly tackles such dominant icons and artifacts as football mascots, fake dreamcatchers, Elvis, and Anime and places them in a contemporary Indian cultural context alongside fried bologna sandwiches, two-steps, and star quilts,” (Slapin, 2001, p. 116).  This book was an Oklahoma Book Award Finalist; for this title Smith was selected to be part of the 2001 Writers of the Year in Children’s Prose by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.

Reader’s Annotation: Six months ago, Rain’s best friend died and she’s been in a self-imposed exile ever since, but when anti-Indian prejudice is expressed regarding her Aunt’s Indian Camp summer program, Rain has to decide how — or IF — to respond. 

Information about the Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith writes books for all ages, from young children to young adult and adult.  She has published picture books in addition to short stories, essays, and young adult novels.  Leitich Smith’s website (http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/) is a wonder of resources for readers and writers.  It includes recommended reading lists, advice for those interested in becoming writers, and extensive information about Leitich Smith and her writing.

Leitich Smith is genuinely interested in the world and people around her and generously shares her talents and insights.  She is a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and some of her works include authentically portrayed American Indian characters, something that is unfortunately often lacking in books about American Indians.  She currently lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, also a writer, Greg Leitich Smith (http://gregleitichsmith.com/).

Genre: Multicultural Fiction, Issues, Contemporary Life, Realistic Fiction

Subgenres/Themes: Multicultural Fiction: Multicultural Americans: Native Americans; Issues: Social Concerns: Activism, Racism; Contemporary Life: Coming of Age

Curriculum Ties: Civil Rights, Discrimination

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Identity Development
  • Young Adult Activism

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 13 – 17

Challenge Issues: There are no obvious challenge issues associated with this book.  Preparation for any challenge can include the librarian’s: reading of the book, adhering to the library’s collection development department, and possessing reviews of the book from well-regarded sources.

Why is this book included? This book is included because of its critical praise as well as its subject matter.  There are not that many books for young adults about contemporary American Indian life.  And, though the main character is fourteen years old, the content is relevant for older teens as well, and the writing is accessible for older teens at a lower reading level.

References:

Leitich Smith, C. (2001). Rain is not my Indian name.  New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Slapin, B. (2001). Rain is not my Indian name. MultiCultural Review, 10(3), 115-116.


Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Bibliographic Information: Myers, W.D. (1999). Monster. New York, NY: Harper Tempest.  ISBN: 0064407314.  281 pages.

Plot Summary: Sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial, as an adult, for felony murder.  He’s terrified. The prosecutor calls him and his co-defendant “monsters.” But, is he a monster, or is he innocent, as he claims? Steve is accused of being the lookout man in a convenience store robbery that ends with the murder of the store owner. But was he there? Uniquely presented in Steve’s voice, the book consists of first person journal entries as well as a movie script-style of story telling, complete with blocking and camera directions. Steve reports on what prison is like, how his trial is progressing and he looks back on the day the events took place.  Dealing with the complexities of racism, poverty, peer pressure, and freedom, readers will experience how painstakingly difficult the jury’s job is as they try to distinguish honorable from self-serving motives and truths from lies.

Critical Evaluation: Compelling and intense, Monster paints a picture of a young boy struggling with right and wrong, prejudice, and the pressure to belong. The honest first person accounts, and movie script-style, give the book authenticity and interest and draw the reader in to the story.  Myers uses realistic language and sets the scene with honesty and integrity.  Many teens will relate to various elements in Steve’s struggles, teens who have been incarcerated or who have committed crimes will hear themselves in some of Steve’s words.  The depths of Steve’s troubles give the reader empathy for his predicament as well as ambivalence about the crimes he is accused of committing. This book is better suited to more mature teens, due to its heavy subject matter, violence, and references to sexual assault in prison.  Monster received numerous awards and honors including: Michael L. Printz Award Winner 2000, Edgar Award nomination for Best Young Adult Mystery 2000, Coretta Scott King Award Honor 2000, National Book Award Finalist 1999, ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults 2000, ALA’s Recommended Books for Reluctant Young Readers 2000.

Reader’s Annotation: The maximum length of the annotation should be no more than two sentences

Information about the Author:  Walter Dean Myers has written somewhere around 100 books, mostly young adult realistic fiction. He has also written children’s picture books and nonfiction.

He was born in West Virginia, in August 1932 and was raised in Harlem, New York.  Myers dropped out of high school, but not before a teacher who recognized his writing talent, told him to “keep writing no matter what happened to [him.]”  He also loved basketball, which plays a role in several of his novels.  He calls his teen years the most difficult years of his life, and draws his writing inspiration from these years.

Genre: Issues, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Alternative Formats, Multicultural Fiction, Realistic Fiction

Sub Genres & Themes: Issues: Social Concerns: Crime and Criminals; Mystery/Suspense/Thriller: Contemporary Mystery; Alternative Formats: Mixed Formats

Curriculum Ties: Social Studies

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Discuss Steve’s predicament, what would YOU do?

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 14-18

Challenge Issues: Crime, Murder, Violence.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.  Also, there are several positive reviews of the book, and it has won several awards and honors, three are mentioned above.

Why is this book included? Hailed by critics, I chose to include Monster for its excellent writing and compelling storyline as well as several awards and nominations, as noted above.  I am also a big fan of Walter Dean Myers, so I wanted to include a title of his in my blog.  Monster was published in 1999, but the story of Steve’s struggles is timeless, and will continue to be current for many years to come. Additionally, Monster depicts an African American teen, providing much-needed ethnic diversity to the teen Mystery genre.


Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin

Bibliographic Information: Felin, M. S. (2007). Touching Snow. New York, NY: Atheneum.  ISBN: 1416917950.  240 pages.

Plot Summary: “The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone,” and thus starts the novel Touching Snow. Part thriller and mystery part coming-of-age and love story, Touching Snow details the struggles of 13-year-old Karina and her family.  Born in the US, to a Haitian immigrant mother, Karina lives in a town she calls “a place full of white folks.”  Being a racial and cultural outsider, as well as a bit quirky makes school socially AND academically problematic.  She might even be put in special education classes, if her grades and behavior don’t improve!  But these challenges are nothing compared to the horrific physical abuse Karina and her sisters suffer at the hands of their stepfather: “The Daddy.”  One misstep, and “The Daddy” could leave them bruised, broken, and bleeding…or worse.  Karina’s honest, riveting voice tells the reader, almost as a friend, of the brutal abuse she and her sisters suffer.  Karina is a member of a large extended Haitian immigrant family, but no one, not even the law, seems to be able to protect her and her sisters from the “beat-ups” that sometimes leave them just this side of dead. In addition to the extreme violence she is forced to withstand at home, outside of the home she is confronted with racism, and xenophobia. It is under these circumstances that Karina, prone to crushes on girls and fainting spells, struggles with schoolwork, making friends, and figuring out who she is.  Karina has dreams for a better future, but can she survive?

Critical Evaluation: Gripping from its first line, Touching Snow leads the reader on a disturbing, yet engrossing, journey into the life of Karina. The writing compels the reader to feel what Karina is experiencing, and to cheer for Karina’s survival, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Karina’s voice is honest and authentic as she describes the sometimes funny sometimes horrific events in her life.  Though the novel is set in the 1980’s, the characters grapple with issues that are present today and will, unfortunately, be present in the future. With complex and multi-faceted characters and disturbing violence, this book, though about a 13-year-old, is better suited to teens or more mature tweens. Karina’s brutal honesty and strong spirit will captivate readers in Felin’s compelling and gripping Touching Snow, an Edgar Award Nominee for Best Young Adult Mystery, a National book award finalist, and an honoree for ALA and YALSA Best Books for Young Adults.

Reader’s Annotation: Karina and her sisters live in constant fear of their angry and violent stepfather.  Confronting terror at home and racism from the outside world, Karina’s life is hard.  Will she and her sisters all make it out alive?

Information about the Author: M. Sindy Felin herself grew up as the first member of her family born in the US.  She was raised, like Karina, in suburban New York by Haitian immigrant parents, was the first girl to attend college in her family, and her inspiration for Touching Snow came from social issues she observed in the Haitian immigrant community, including the resilience and resourcefulness of the families.

Felin now is a single mother to triplets!  Read about her experience here.

Genres: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Issues, Multicultural Fiction, Realistic Fiction,

Sub Genres: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller: Contemporary Mystery; Issues: Social Concerns: Racism; Issues: Life Is Hard: Physical and Emotional Abuse

Curriculum Ties: Immigration, Health, English, Domestic Violence

Booktalking Ideas:

  • “‘The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone.’  And so begins the novel Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin.”

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 13-19

Challenge Issues: Budding lesbian romance, violence.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.  Also, there are several positive reviews of the book, and it has won several awards and honors, three are mentioned above.

Why is this book included?  Critically praised and award-winning, Touching Snow is beautifully and authentically written.  Its protagonist, a teen girl of Haitian descent, in a budding lesbian relationship, brings an underrepresented, and authentic, voice to teen mysteries.  The mystery genre is surprisingly un-diverse, so this book, and others with characters of color, are especially important include in a collection for teens.

References:

2007 National Book Award Finalist, Young People’s Literature. (2007). Retrieved from http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2007_ypl_felin.html


The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah

Bibliographic Information: Souljah, S. (1999). The Coldest Winter Ever. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.  ISBN: 7671400799.  413 pages.

Plot Summary: Winter was living the life!  She lived with her mother, father and sisters in the projects in Brooklyn, but never wanted for anything.  Her father, the leader of a prominent drug dealing operation, spoiled her with fancy jewelry, clothes, and things.  The cold winter night she was born, he gave her a diamond ring.  Winter’s mother was beautiful and stylish and knew how to get what she wanted from her man.  Winter, was interested in boys, and she learned a lot from her mother about how the world worked.  Life was going along fine in Brooklyn when Winter’s father decided they should move to a large home in the suburbs.  Things changed for Winter in her 17th year.  She had a new school, which she went to only when she felt like it.  She missed her extended family and friends from the projects, and then things started to take a turn for the worse.  Can Winter survive the coldest Winter ever?  At what cost?

Critical Evaluation: Souljah captures the language and the feel of the streets in this honest and frank novel.  Winter minces no words when she speaks of her life and her desires, and Souljah does not hold back in her dramatic and sometimes shocking portrayal of Winter in this coming of age novel.  Souljah has a definite message in this book; she advocates self respect, respect for one’s body, one’s family, one’s community.  She wants young people to recognize the dangers of drugs and violence and stay away from them.  She packages her message in a story using language that many young people can relate to, the gritty vernacular of urban Brooklyn and beyond.  Those offended by expletives should stay away, but without the raw, real language this novel’s authenticity would be potentially suspect.  Throughout it all Souljah’s message, which she espouses both as an author and a real-life activist, remains strong and steady.  As evidence of its longevity and appeal, this book is on the ALA’s 2010 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list.

Reader’s Annotation: Seventeen year old Winter lives a life of excess, thanks to the many material possessions provided to her by her father, a prominent drug dealer.  When her life gets turned upside down, Winter must figure out which direction to go.

Information about the Author: In addition to being an author, Sister Souljah is a hip hop artist, an activist, an educator, and a powerful speaker.  She grew up in the projects in Bronx, New York, and “is a fighter who came up from the bottom.”  Some credit Souljah with reviving the Urban Literature genre in 1999 with The Coldest Winter Ever, as the genre had been in some decline in the late 1980’s early 1990’s.  Some believe that hip hop music was becoming the expression of choice for urban youth, thus pushing urban fiction aside, but The Coldest Winter Ever has sold over a million copies all over the world and, though it is over 20 years old, is still being sold today.

Genre: Issues, Multicultural Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Urban Fiction

Category: Issues: Social Concerns: Crime and Criminals

Topics Covered: Drug Use, Illegal Activities, Sexuality, Family, Incarceration, Violence, Socio-economic status, Friendship

Curriculum Ties: Health Education, Social Studies, English

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Description of Winter’s lavish lifestyle from the beginning of the book
  • Character analysis of Winter

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 15-19

Challenge Issues: Sex, Drugs, Violence, Explicit Language.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.

Why is this book included? This book speaks to young people, and it speaks the language of young people.  The young people who hear their voices or lives reflected in The Coldest Winter Ever are underrepresented in novels.  A good collection includes a diversity of voices and perspectives for those reflected in a work and those learning a new perspective from a work.  This work is a classic in urban fiction, and is still very popular today.


The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake

Bibliographic Information: Flake, S. (1998). The Skin i’m in. New York, NY: Jump at the Sun, Hyperion. ISBN: 1423103858. 171 pages.

Plot Summary: Maleeka Madison’s life is not easy.  Her mother has been mourning the death of Maleeka’s father for the past two years, leaving Maleeka, a seventh grader, responsible for more than someone her age should be.  Her dark skin; tall, skinny frame; and homemade clothing are fodder for the harsh critics that are her school classmates.  And her small group of “friends,” lead by the most popular and feared girl in school, are only there due to Maleeka’s book smarts that help them pass their courses.  And then comes the new teacher, Miss Saunders, an African American woman with a large white birthmark across her face.  Miss Saunders seems to see Maleeka for who she really is, a sensitive, intelligent girl doing the best she can in difficult circumstances.  But, Miss Saunders expects great things from Maleeka, and will not settle for less, she encourages Maleeka to write and express herself.  “Miss Saunders loves the skin she’s in.  Can Maleeka learn to do the same?” (from The Skin i’m in, back cover).

Critical Evaluation: Maleeka’s struggle to accept herself and find her place in an often cruel world is authentic and moving.  Through Flake, Maleeka’s voice is sensitive and strong and draws the reader in to her complicated world.  The Skin i’m in is Flakes first book, and she has gone on to write other well-received and significant works.  Highly praised by critics, The Skin i’m in’s many awards and honors include: Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Publishers Weekly Author to Watch, New York Public Library Top Ten Book for the Teen Age, YALSA Best Books for Young Adult Readers, YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers.  This book provides an important perspective and voice that is often underrepresented.  The book not only addresses on racism and bullying, but also brings up the issue of colorism or skin tone bias within the African American community.  Providing hope without being trite, The Skin i’m in would provide substantial subject matter for both classroom and book group discussions.

Reader’s Annotation: Maleeka is considered to tall, skinny, and dark-skinned by her classmates.  When Miss Saunders, the unlikely new teacher, comes to Maleeka’s school she has something to teach Maleeka that she will not find in her school books.

Information about the Author: Sharon Flake is an  acclaimed and celebrated author of young adult literature, but she is so much more.  She wants young people to learn to love themselves for who they are, to dream, and to follow their passions.  Here is the text from the page on her website entitled “4U” from (http://www.sharongflake.com/4u/).

A Message4U

As you read my novels, believe that you can do and accomplish more than you know. After all, you have so many gifts, so many talents, so many opportunities to accomplish what you will. You’re human, so you’ll make mistakes along the way. We all do. But don’t you dare give up on you. Forget the haters. Forgive yourself and others. Brush yourself off and start over again if things don’t work out the way you planned.

I felt scared and little most of my life, so I know what it feels like to push past your fears and learn to see yourself differently. If I can do it, so can you. After all, you are the hope for the future, the promise that everything will be okay if we just don’t quit on ourselves or one another.

Hope. Dream. Believe.

Laugh a little.

Work hard (nothing gets accomplished without hard work). And watch what happens: you’re begin to see what many of us have known about you all along—you can do incredible things and have a remarkable life.

Just Hope. Dream. Believe. I do.

Genre: Issues, Multicultural Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Urban Fiction

Category: Issues: Social Concerns: Racism

Topics Covered: Racism, Colorism, Bullying, Friendship, Family, Sexual Harassment

Curriculum Ties: English, Social Studies

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Describe Maleeka’s friendship with Charlese

Reading Level/Interest Age: 12 – 16

Challenge Issues: There are no obvious challenge issues associated with this book.  Preparation for any challenge can include the librarian’s: reading of the book, adhering to the library’s collection development department, and possessing reviews of the book from well-regarded sources.

Why is this book included? Authentic multicultural portrayals have an important place in a library’s collection.  Though this book is about a seventh grader, the topics are relevant for younger as well as older readers.  The reading level is appropriate for older readers and reluctant readers who need more accessible books with interesting and relevant subject matter.  The book is also an excellent piece of literature, was well-reviewed and received several awards (see above “Critical Evaluation”).

References:

Shea, L. (2004). Editors shelf. Multicultural Review, 13(4), 14-24.