It's hardly an accident, given the overwhelming success of the Harry Potter books, that a contingent of writers has suddenly discovered the young-adult author within. But veteran novelist Sharon Flake is no Johnny-come-lately to the genre. "This is not a place I visit," says Flake. "This is a place where I live." Her novels, which explore the lives of African-American teenagers, are known for their honest depiction of gritty urban life and racism, as well as the universal themes of teen insecurity and angst. "I don't write about easy stuff," admits Flake, 49. "I take a no-holds-barred approach."
That approach has won her increasing acclaim. Says Diane Roback, children's- book editor at Publishers Weekly: "Sharon Flake raises important issues about self-awareness for African Americans and leaves readers with a sense of hope." Flake is unusual in that she writes with equal dexterity for male and female readers. Her accomplished new book, Bang! (Jump at the Sun/Hyperion; 298 pages), works equally well as an adult novel. Bang! is a sound that reverberates through the book, which follows the disintegration of a family after one member, a 7-year-old boy, is killed in a random shooting on the front porch. Two years after his death, the family still cannot make sense of this ugly twist of fate. Mann, the 13-year-old narrator, struggles with guilt over his inability to save his brother. His father, convinced that there are forces out to destroy his remaining son, becomes almost abusive in his insistence that Mann toughen up. "You a man, not no sissy baby girl!" the father yells.
If Flake's dialogue and plot lines seem real to her readers, it's because she draws on her inner-city experience and vivid memories as an insecure, bookish adolescent. "I cried for Mann's pain," says Flake. "I cried as a mother. I cried as a black person who's watching this boy go through this stuff, knowing there are other boys that go through this." Mann and his best friend have a cynical joke about their violent neighborhood: "We is the news."
The author grew up in North Philadelphia, an area with its share of poverty and crime. Her childhood home, however, was loving and strong: in her close-knit family, the six kids were tended by determined parents who are still married after 57 years. For the past 27 years, Flake, a single mother, has made her home in Pittsburgh, Pa., where she attended college and raised her daughter Brittney, 18. "I'm an inner-city person," she explains. "I want to be close to a museum. I want to be close to a park. It's a mixed neighborhood, but I also want to be close to people who look like me." Her first book, The Skin I'm In, an inspirational novel meant for her darker-skinned daughter, won the Coretta Scott King Award, a prize given annually to an African-American children's author.