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The skin I'm in
Book
1998
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Trade Reviews

  Booklist Review

Whether the setting is a tough city neighborhood or a poor Hawaiian village, bullies are scary, gangs are trouble, and it's hard to be different. In both these YA novels, a middle-schooler feels like an outcast and struggles for acceptance. Be sure to connect these books with the Read-alikes column "Bullies" [BKL S 1 97]. In Flake's novel, Maleeka Madison feels like a freak in her inner-city middle school. The kids pick on her because she's "the darkest, worst-dressed thing in school" and because she gets good grades. The leader of the pack is Charlese, who pulls and pushes Maleeka into wilder and wilder delinquent behavior. A new teacher tries to help and so does a smart, friendly boy. In the end, Maleeka stands up for herself, wins the poetry contest, and likes the skin she's in. The message is overt ("Strut your stuff . . . accept yourself for who you are"), but first novelist Flake lessens the sermonizing. Funny and clever, she's honest about how mean people are, how hard it is. The characters are complex: even the cute, friendly boyfriend fails Maleeka one time when she most needs him; the teacher is vulnerable as well as strong; the bad girl's home is a disaster. The gum-smacking, wisecracking dialogue in the hallways, the girls' bathroom, and the classroom will pull readers into a world too rarely represented in middle-grade fiction. Every outsider kid will get it, every victim of class bullies. Salisbury's novel also has many scenes that take place in the classroom, and the teacher is a mentor who tries to help. Small and bespectacled, Boy Kahekilimaikalani Regis is terrified of the pack of wild "jungle" dogs that he has to confront on his early-morning paper route near his island village. His older brother, Damon, calls Boy "sissy," but at school and on the street, Damon has always watched out for Boy. Now Boy wants Damon to stay out of things: the macho challenges are just intensifying the gang warfare and the danger for everyone. Boy makes himself face the scary dogs, and he tries to get his brother to see that everything doesn't have to be fight or die. The classroom project--" Who Do You Look Up To?--is too messagey, but Boy's answer about his enemy is both tentative and realistic ("I even look up to a boy I don't like very much because I know he cares about things"). Boy's "worn-out, dirt-stained" home is loving despite the conflicts, and there's a strong sense of the rough teenage world, where one boy tries to stop the hating. --Hazel Rochman

  Kirkus Review

A timid seventh grader finds the mettle to shake some bad companions in this patchy esteem-builder from Flake. Tired of being harassed in the halls for her dark skin and homemade clothes, Maleeka latches on to tough, mouthy classmate Charlese for protection, although the cost is high: doing Charlese's homework and enduring her open contempt. Enter Miss Saunders, a large, expensively dressed advertising executive on sabbatical for a year to teach in an inner-city school; Maleeka puts up a hostile front, but slowly, angrily, responds to the woman's ""interference,"" creating a journal that is part diary, part a fictional slave's narrative that later wins a writing contest. As Maleeka inches toward independence, Charlese counterattacks, bullying her into incriminating acts that climax with a fire in Miss Saunders's classroom. The violence is contrived, the characters sketchy and predictable, but the relationship that develops between Maleeka and Miss Saunders isn't all one-way. A serviceable debut featuring a main character who grows in clearly composed stages. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
So begins the story of Maleeka Madison, a child burdened with the low self-esteem that many black girls face when they're darker skinned. When Maleeka lays eyes on her new teacher, Miss Saunders, she encounters someone who, she feels, is worse off than she is. But Miss Saunders' skin, which is blotched with a rare skin condition, comes to serve as a mirror to Maleeka's struggle. Miss Saunders is tough -- she doesn't stand for the snickers and shouts that her students hurl at her. Through this example, Maleeka learns that she can stand up to tough-talking Charlese. And, over time, she can even accept Caleb's friendship, the unconditional acceptance he's been showing her from the get-go. Sharon Flake, an exceptional new talent, weaves a stunning tale of finding one's place in a world that judges others at face value.
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