Monday, March 2, 2015

Unstoppable #StoryGirls: A Women's History Month Interview with Sharon G. Flake

Thank you for signal boosting my February 2015 #AARI15 picks! I hope that many of you were able to participate in NCTE's 25th anniversary Read-Ins, and spent the month savoring the wonderful world of African American children's and young adult literature for Black History Month.

To launch my March 2015 #StoryGirls hashtag, this month's featured blog post is an interview with award-winning author Sharon G. Flake. Her 2014 middle grades novel, Unstoppable Octobia May, was my first daily Twitter recommendation for March 1, and leads a month of #StoryGirls from all backgrounds and walks of life. I first met Sharon at NCTE 2004, which was the very first national educational conference I attended. It has been more than a decade since then, but I have been consistently impressed by Sharon's talent for capturing authentic voices of young people, as well as her sincerity and commitment to authentically representing their lives.

Sharon G. Flake exploded onto the literary scene with her novel The Skin I'm In in 1998, and was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start. Since then she has become a multiple Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award winner and has been hailed as the voice of middle-grade youth as well as a Rising Star by The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. Many of Sharon’s novels have received ALA Notable and Best Books for Young Adults citations from the American Library Association. Her writing has been applauded for its on-point narrative that explores issues affecting teens from all walks of life. She currently lives in Pittsburgh. Please visit Sharon’s website:

Sharon is a phenomenal woman, and her accomplishments tell the tale. From Maleeka in The Skin I'm In, to all the many different portraits of girls' lives in the anthology Who Am I Without Him?, and on to Autumn in Pinned and Octobia May in The Unstoppable Octobia May, Sharon has a long bibliography of girls who rock. Late last month, she was gracious enough to respond to a few interview questions.

1.  I read (and loved!) Unstoppable Octobia May last fall, and participated in the #IAmUnstoppable campaign. What was your inspiration for this unique, “unstoppable" girl character?

I am often in awe of the tenacity, creativity, and spirit of African-American youth, so I always want to show their depth of character and purpose.  For instance, in my novel Pinned, my protagonist Autumn Knight is a struggling reader and a gifted wrestler; the only girl on the team. The boy she loves is in a wheelchair, smart as a whip yet bound by secrets.

Often we place limits on girls, especially ones like Autumn, but what if we didn’t? That very question is at the core of everything I write, even if it is the 1950’s and things still aren’t equal for African Americans, girls or women.  Even if the protagonist is an imaginative 10-year-old girl sleuth who thinks it is her right to pursue wrongdoers and to question authority figures (both black and white) as she fearlessly moves through life.
Image result for unstoppable octobia mayOctobia May is independent, brave, adventurous and smart.  Living in the 1950’s, she is determined to be her own person, while also solving what might be the biggest mystery in town.  At the heart of most of my novels are girls like her, who are strong down to their very marrow, no matter how they may appear on the surface.  My inspiration for all of them I suppose, was the women in my life.  Take my mother.  She was an introvert.   Sitting in our kitchen snapping peas and tending to pots, she ran the world though she let my dad think he did.  My grandmother took care of a disabled husband for about sixteen years, boiling his sheets to ward off infection, crawling upstairs on her knees bone tired after cleaning someone else’s home some days. She purchased her own home making money from day’s work.  And filled it with antiques and beautiful furniture. These women, along with the ones on the block where I grew up—Miss Connie, Miss Portis, Miss Ruby, Miss Estelle and others—showed me (though I wasn’t so aware at the time) the depth and complexity of womanhood.  What it meant to be a black girl and woman living in the inner city.  In them I saw the steady drumbeat of resolve.  That it didn’t take money to make a neighborhood safe, clean, filled with love—it took a want to no nonsense spirit and some hard work.  These women were determined to push through whatever the day brought them, while they lived, loved, laughed and even cried, I suppose.  Because of them and the men on my block (my father and all of their husbands) I always felt protected and loved.
Octobia May is my most self-assured, fun-loving, inquisitive protagonist to date.  Her energy is fueled by all of those women, but it is also the result of my own going of age.   I could not have written about such a girl when I first stepped onto the literary stage.  Though aspects of her can be found in all of my characters as well as myself—I was filled with too much insecurity, self-doubt and fear to create such a girl until now.  At 59 I worry less about what other people think, and more about what I know for sure.  I am hopeful that it won’t take the next generation as long.

2.  One aspect of the book that I found particularly interesting was the blend of genres. I remember my grandparents talking about the boardinghouses they lived in when they came North in 1919 and 1947 — the house Octobia May’s aunt runs reminded me of their stories. What went into your decision to set the story in the past?

I did not realize it growing up, but my parents are natural born story tellers.  As children, we laughed our way through their stories, learned a lot about our family and culture, and at other times were amazed at the pain and cruelty our people suffered in America.  
Many of my parent’s stories revolved around life in the 30’s and the 50’s. As a result, I have wanted to write about the 1950’s for a while now. Unstoppable Octobia May gave me that opportunity.  I did a lot of research, but I also picked my parents’ brains, and recalled the stories I loved hearing best as a child. Do not ask me why, but one of my favorite stories was not even a story at all.  It was simply a fact.  To escape the heat, lots of people in the 50’s would sleep outside on their fire escapes. Though I could never imagine doing so myself, the image intrigued me for decades.  As a result, Octobia May and her friends find themselves sleeping on the fire escape, talking about the moon and the stars.
 Last summer as I drove my father to the bank, he began to point to vacant buildings, recalling the stores they once housed.   There was a hat store; one that made ties. Loads of others.  My 88-year-old father has an exceptional memory, so he gave me every detail, which I relished.  He also spoke of a dairy across town.  When Octobia May is on the boat, she speaks of these businesses to the reader. It helps to give them a sense of time and place, solidifying a particular era in the minds of readers. 
 Some of my grandmother’s wisdom made it into the book, as well.  ‘A whistling woman and a crowing hen, always come to a no good end,’ is just one of them.  Jonah, Octobia May’s best friend, recites that verse in the book.  When his mother speaks of reaching for higher berries and better bushes; that is my grandmother’s wisdom too.  There was a time when we passed on saying like these.  Having the characters talk about them demonstrates in some ways how history and culture get handed down to the next generation.  
I am a child of the 50’s, so I remember a horse drawn wagon riding up our block;   the owner selling fresh vegetables.  I loved our cobblestone street.  I drew on these images, though the book isn’t set in Philly.  Or maybe it is, and I am just fooling myself. 

3.     Sometimes, I’ve found that readers of all ages avoid historical fiction. But kids here in Philly loved the story! What makes Unstoppable Octobia May different?

Historical fiction can be interesting, entertaining and relevant, all at once.  When this happens, young people aren’t so inclined to want to part with a book.   That is what I’m finding with Unstoppable Octobia May.  
I wanted  to create a character that wasn’t  restricted by what  history said about certain individuals or groups, like what it meant to be a girl in the 50’s; a black man during World War ll.  At the same time, I also wanted to relay certain historical facts.

From the very first sentence of the book, young people seem to be hooked.  Before the end of the chapter, so are adults.  A girl with a lively imagination who talks about vampires, writes the president of the United States and courageously solves mysteries, is bound to touch the hearts of a lot of people I suppose.  And so she does. In school, young people hear about Linda Brown a lot; but not in the way Unstoppable Octobia May introduces her to them.  Looking at history from a different perspective can give young readers a new opportunity (in class or at home) to have fresh discussions about tough issues like segregation, and racism; our countries expectations of girls and women, as well as the treatment of Jews in this country.

I believe your Philly students were excited because there is so much in the book to like.  Humor, a strong girl who takes on the world, and history told through new eyes in a different voice without skirting serious issues or forgetting that children are the primary audience.

There is so much meat here for teachers and school districts working with the Common Core too.  And while the protagonist is a girl, boys have found it a good read as well. That makes sense to me, because I have always believed that a good book pulls in all sorts of readers.

4. In your campaign to promote the book, you spoke about unstoppable girls, which I think is a brilliant theme for Women’s History Month. As a longtime reader of your fiction, I’ve found so many of your girl characters to be unstoppable. What messages about empowerment do you hope your readers take away from Unstoppable Octobia May, as well as the other amazing story girls you’ve dreamed and imagined into existence over the years?

I had fun with the Unstoppable campaign, and thanks for participating.  I have something coming in May built around the campaign so folks should be on the lookout.  If parents, teachers and schools would like their students to participate, they should email me.

I struggled with confidence.  Many girls and women still do.  So as I travel the country speaking, I talk to girls a lot about such things.  My hope is that girls will know for themselves who they are, what they are good at, and why it is okay to ask for what they want. I hope they quit waiting to be unafraid, That they will leap even while still shaking in their boots. Raise their hand and answer the question even when they aren’t one hundred percent certain it’s correct.  And finally my hope is that they stop looking at the girl or guy next to them for validation and approval, but learn to trust that inner voice inside.  In other words, I hope they leap.

I was good at leaping, but inside I doubted, questioned, and double checked myself against others who sometimes may not have been as accomplished as I was.  I wanted validation, but at the same time there was this Octobia May inside of me.  Autumn, Raspberry and Maleeka too.  All of them saying, “Girl you better make that move.”  As a result, I made some moves that did not serve me well, but most times I landed solidly on my own two feet. Inside I would be shaking, in my office in my forties crying—but I never quit jumping, leaping, flying—so I have always spoken to boys and girls about my experiences.

Several of my characters have their insecurities and fears.  But they also believe they have what it takes to get where they are trying to go, no matter how long it takes.  That is also why I create so many characters with flaws—I love to show young people that no one is perfect, that we all have our mess, we also have the ability to move pass it and become who we were born to be. 

5.     What’s your next project? What can your fans and loyal readers look forward to next from your pen?

I am not saying much about it just yet.  But I have taken one of the short stories from Who Am I Without Him? (The Ugly One) and turned it into a novel.   Think Victorian English, African-American English and Standard English all spoken in the same novel.  I had a lot of fun writing it, and love, love the title.  But that is also hush, hush for now.

You may reach Sharon G. Flake at, Facebook: sharonflake, and @sharonflake on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. "At the heart of most of my novels are girls like her, who are strong down to their very marrow, no matter how they may appear on the surface." May we all be so privileged to speak of and write of the women in our lives like this!

    Thanks for this interview, E.E. - I love Ms. Flake, and haven't had a moment to sit down with Miss Octobia May just yet, but she's on my pile! I also thought WHO AM I WITHOUT HIM was an amazing piece of literature, and am really excited to hear about a spin-off novel from one of the stories! Can't wait.

    Thanks again!