The auditorium at Hammond Middle School was packed with students who were eager to see Friday morning’s invited guest. Hip-hop music blared over the loudspeaker as a roar of applause and shouts erupted from the audience. This was a rock star’s welcome, yet the visitor was no musician. She was Sharon Flake, author of a series of wildly popular books aimed at middle-school readers.
“We can’t keep her books in the library,” said Hammond librarian Elaine Brand. “She is one of the most popular authors here at Hammond, and her books are constantly in circulation.”
Flake stopped at the school as part of a two-day swing through Alexandria, making appearances at Hammond and George Washington Middle School. She spoke about her books, the creative process and persevering through challenging times. She also took questions from students about everything from her age to her paycheck. For many teachers and administrators, the fact that students were so enamored by a writer was a pleasant surprise.
“It’s really exciting to see how students are reacting to her books,” said Sara Schafer, sixth-grade assistant principal. “I think she’s done a great job at inspiring out students to read.”
A NATIVE OF PHILADELPHIA, Flake received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh. She spent several years as a youth counselor and public-relations specialist before launching a career as a writer, publishing five novels in the past eight years: “The Skin I'm In” in 1998, “Money Hungry” in 2002, “Begging for Change” in 2003, “Who Am I Without Him?” in 2004 and “Bang” in 2005.
Her books explore universal teenage themes of insecurity and angst with a gritty portrayal of urban life and racism. For example, her newest book, “Bang,” is about a 7-year-old boy who was killed on his front porch in a random shooting. The narrator of the book is his 13-year-old brother, who struggles with lingering guilt over the death.
“My stories are not about problems,” Flake told the middle-school students. “They are about overcoming problems.”
In the Hammond auditorium, Flake read excerpts from several of her books and spoke about her own experience of becoming a writer. She said that she fought the urge to write for many years, eventually succumbing as her daughter struggled with her own identity as a teenager. “The Skin I’m In,” Flake’s first book, was intended to help her daughter cope with her peers’ comments about skin tone.
“It’s not a book that’s about my daughter,” Flake said. “But I wanted her to feel good about the skin she was in.”
When that book was published in 1998, it started a wave for Flake. She told the students that she realized that she had a gift, and she encouraged them to develop their own talents and abilities. She suggested that students who were interested in writing organize groups where they could share working drafts with a receptive audience of peers.
“I read all my work out loud,” she told the students. “Then I ask myself if it sounds like a 13-year-old said it.”
AFTER FLAKE’S presentation, students lingered in Hammond’s auditorium to discuss the author’s work and her appearance at the school. They seemed enthusiastic about seeing a writer whose work they had read, and they were eager to share their own opinion of Flake and her books.
“She writes about real life,” said Ta-Neshia James, a seventh-grader at Hammond. “It’s things you can relate to.”
Jenny Melara, a sixth-grader at the west-end middle school, said that she liked “Bang” because the book explored many of the issues she had to deal with when her friend’s brother was killed.
“It was a sad moment,” Melara said. “And we couldn’t get over it.”
Bezawit Fissaha, a seventh-grader, said she was a fan because Flake created a literary world that was similar to the real one that confronts her everyday. She said that the writing was clear and the plots unfolded in a way that kept her turning the pages to find out what happens next.
“She knows how we think,” Fissaha said. “It’s like she knows what’s going through our heads.”