Blog Post
Books as Mirrors: Why It Is Critical for Readers to Find Themselves Between the Pages of Books

It wasn't long ago that Ruth Mathurin was an elementary school student embarking on an unknown and daunting journey: grappling with a new home, family, climate -- and vastly different culture.

Ruth was born in Haiti. When she was just an infant, she lost her mother to a fatal bus accident. Before Ruth began the second grade, she was sent to live with her estranged father and his family in Lynn, Massachusetts. There, she faced the additional challenges of adapting to a new environment and adopting a new language. She was often discouraged during her early studies, and she entered the 5th grade reading at a 2nd grade level. She remembers lacking book choices that were compelling and relatable, which she could read independently as she worked to become a more fluent reader. More than discouraged, however, Ruth was determined. That year, she grew her reading level by more than two and a half years before moving on to the 6th grade.

Today Ms. Mathurin is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS), paving her way in healthcare administration at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Her dream job. Getting here at times felt to Ruth like an insurmountable feat, as she worked to overcome the obstacles in her school and family environment. Ruth credits her turning point in no small part to a particular book she encountered in middle school.

"Middle school is a time in which people try to find themselves," Ruth says, "and I was extremely lost and insecure at that age. Confidence was something I greatly struggled with in school and in general. It took me a really long time to find and become myself."

Ruth's early insecurities are common among English Language Learners, especially middle and high school students. "I was always nervous to read aloud," she says, "because I didn’t want to be laughed at for saying the wrong thing. While most of the other kids knew all the big words, I really had no idea what a majority of any of them meant."

It was The Skin I'm In by Sharon G. Flake that gave Ruth a much-needed boost of confidence. "This was the first book I read in which the main character was not only a young woman of color, but one who was experiencing the same exact things I was experiencing. It was just beautiful seeing her find herself and watching her overcome all of the adversity she had faced."

Watching Maleeka, the main character of the story, not only survive — but thrive through similar hardships provided the hope and inspiration for Ruth to "see that I can do anything I put my mind to. The Skin I’m In taught me to embrace who I am and the skin I wear, and it did so at a point where I was going through possibly the darkest time of my life."

The Skin I'm In has had an equally powerful and life-changing effect on countless other readers and is what established Flake as a must-read author among middle and high school students, parents, and educators. She has spoken to more than two hundred thousand young people, and hugged nearly as many.

What this highlights is the undeniable importance of every reader being able to find themselves and their experiences in the books they read. This is especially true for those readers who are underrepresented, and navigating difficult times; paying witness to a character going through similar circumstances shows readers that they are not alone, but connected.

Author Sharon G. Flake holds this truth close to her heart and writing goals. "I write about African-American youth. I take on tough topics and shine light onto people and places that society doesn’t always care to see. I’m an inner city baby at heart, and communities like the one I grew up in shall forever remain in my blood. Voices from those communities can be heard in my novels. The challenges some of those teens face show up as well, along with their determination, ingenuity, and wit."

Young people have written to Flake from all around the globe to tell her about their meaningful experiences with finding themselves - often for the first time - in her work. She says, "If, like Ruth, you read my books and recognize yourself—in whole or in part—then I've done my job. If you see your friends in my novels, or relate to a classmate or stranger a wee bit better, then I've served my purpose."