"Which of you kids in here likes to read?" asks the speaker.
About half the hands of the hundred or so giddy young children kneeling and squatting around the Kelly Elementary School gymnasium go up.
"Which of you kids don't like to read?"
Same number, different hands.
"Then my books are for you."
Sharon G. Flake is at ease carefully pacing amidst the fifth- and sixth-graders at the Wilkinsburg elementary school -- a school much like the one she attended growing up in North Philadelphia. There is a stage behind her, but that's a place for holiday plays and graduation commencements, not an author of the people -- young people, that is.
Flake is reading excerpts from her latest book, Begging for Change. It's the story of a black girl named Raspberry who has to deal with a trifling father and the poverty insecurities of her family, first explored in Flake's book Money Hungry, for which Begging for Change is a sequel. Her first book, The Skin I'm In, published six years ago, similarly concerns a girl, Maleeka, growing up in a family of humble income, though it's also about how she copes with having a darker complexion than her schoolmates, and the teasing and cruelty that usually accompany that.
It's Flake's second elementary school visit of the morning, but slim and graceful in her autumn-y orange sweater and matching mane of hair, Flake doesn't look nearly as exasperated as the teachers sitting with their students. When Flake pauses between passages for brief Q-and-A episodes, hands eagerly shoot up but Flake notices that most of them belong to boys. Most of the children in here this morning, in fact, are black boys; most of the teachers hovering above them are white -- none of them men.
Realizing her books are written mainly from the perspective of young girls, Flake later questions why she regularly draws the interests of the other gender.
"I walked away from Kelly and I asked myself, 'OK, exactly what happened?'" says Flake later over tea at the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty. "A lot of boys asked a lot of good questions. I'm thinking, 'What happens? Because by the time you get to high school, a lot of you are not gonna want to be in school. A lot of you are not gonna want to ask questions. How do we lose you?'"
Getting young black children excited about reading and writing: That's the challenge of many a teacher, school administrator and parent, and through her books Flake is meeting that challenge in spades judging by the reception she gets from kids and parents.
Pulitzer who? Flake has earned an award called Best Book for Reluctant Readers from the American Library Association -- an honor she calls her "most rewarding." Even the Coretta Scott King Legacy Awards she won for her first two books, while greatly appreciated, don't compare to the parents who come to her and tell her, "My child isn't crazy about reading, but she loves your work."
For kids like that, says Flake, "I'll write my phone number in a book after signing it and tell them to read it then call me up and tell me what [they] think about it.
"I'm hoping that a connection will help them get to their next book -- not necessarily my book, but a book. Anybody's book."
Perhaps that connection comes from the fact that Flake's books deal with issues that young blacks -- particularly girls -- growing up in poor dwellings can directly relate to. Girls coming to school in borrowed clothes and one paycheck away from living on the streets can't see themselves in Judy Blume books and Harry Potter characters. Flake's characters are exactly that, but with dignity. In Flake's books, the main characters don't have a lot of money, but thematically they show that you don't need a lot of money to have character.
In her last two books, main character Raspberry lives in the projects with her mother. An affluent doctor falls in love with her mother, and while that's something that might raise eyebrows among those less informed about the hood, in Flake's world it's completely believable. Though her stories take place in inner-city settings, Flake aims to break stereotypes -- almost to say yeah, this is how it is, but this is how it could be, also.
Society is so wedded to the hip-hop ethos that for many black kids "keeping it real" means staying in allegiance with poverty and despair. But while this gloom is a reality for many kids, Flake says, "A lot of excellence comes from the ghetto, also. Many doctors, lawyers and writers come from the inner city."
As Flake makes that point to the children of Kelly Elementary, the kids seem to have their own agenda. They ask Flake a lot of questions, and not all of them have to do with her books. They ask her if she has cats and dogs at home, if she's married, if she's a Christian. One teacher asks Flake about her advance.
One particular question brightens the skin Flake is in just a shade brighter than her locks and sweater: "Do you like your job?"
"I absolutely love my job as an author. I wouldn't trade it for the world!" Flake gushes.
The kids believe her. They probably figure, hey, it beats begging for change.