Career Achievers: Sharon G. Flake on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Sharon G. FlakeHomewood Library, Pittsburgh

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I guess it makes sense that my career always felt a bit magical. For gosh sakes, I began as a Disney Hyperion author. Prior to the publication of The Skin I’m In (Hyperion, 1998), Disney flew several newly published authors and illustrators to New York where a small cast of “The Lion King” performed for us. There was champagne as I recall, a high-ranking Disney executive to welcome us—and Disney theme park trips to follow.

But this writing life ain’t all princess gowns and fairy tales.

Like it or not, bitter apples (let’s call them bumps in the road) appear now and again. But, it’s what you do with them that determines your staying power in the industry.

I was in the business ten years, before I hit a bump in the road. Seven books into my journey my editor left the business all together. Change was afoot I suppose, because the publisher left not long afterward—or did she go first?

I really liked those women. But life happens. And sometimes the bumps keep coming.

My new editor and I didn’t work out. I’ll just say this publicly, I apologize to her. My momma raised me better.

I was fortunate. I was able to choose my editors. So, in walks another editor of my choosing. I’d heard great things about her. She was also responsible for significantly increasing my advancements prior to becoming my editor. Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before I began to think she didn’t like my style; how I wrote. Perhaps it was her 12-page critique that led me to that conclusion.

Sharon at a book festival in Florida

At this time in my career, I had won many accolades and awards. Teachers cried when they spoke to me about the impact of my work. But for the first time in my career, I questioned my abilities and talent. I overthought things; tripled checked my work; wrote and rewrote until I couldn’t recognize my own story.

At some point, my editor was fairly satisfied with the 200-plus novel I turned in. But I was on a roll. For the next round of edits, I turned the manuscript into a 400-plus novel that I deemed perfection. My editor and agent thought otherwise. It took me a while to see the light. And boy, did it sting.

Not long afterward, my editor was offered a position with another house. She asked if I wanted to come with her.

Really? I thought. You serious? Nah.

Her invitation did, however, make me realize that she did indeed value me and my work. We just weren’t the best fit.

After my next editor left the publishing house, (I swear, they weren’t all running from me), my agent decided to take the book to another publisher.

My novel was ultimately published. It didn’t win awards, but it was named a Booklist Top Ten Book of the Year and earned three stars. Not bad for such a difficult birth.

Bumps in the road show up in everyone’s life. They can slow you down, stop you or help propel you forward. But who you choose to be along the way is what will help you stay the course.

I kept writing no matter what. I shifted. I discovered I have many gifts. I began to teach and mentor. I developed my work into stage plays; went from only writing realistic fiction to also writing picture books, historical fiction, and now books in verse.

That bump in the road did me a favor. It helped me expand inside and out. All along I held tight to my love of writing, and the young people I write for. Both have remained my North Star, my biggest reasons for doing what I do.

Writing at the dining room table.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I hadn’t realized I was on an island by myself, until I hit the proverbial bump in the road.

I was part of this incredible children’s writing community, but not part of it, you know? I knew authors and people in this business across the nation. They knew me. We liked and respected one another. But I hadn’t established many close, deep, I-got-your-back-you-got-mine, relationships.

When that bump trips you up, you realize things like that.

I wasn’t comfortable asking for advice or favors. I was used to helping others; lending a hand whenever I could. But there I was in new territory, in many ways, needing to reach out. But how?

21 printings, almost a million copies in print

There’s this introvert in me that would rather not. Besides, I was raised to turn to family in times of need. But how could they help me? They weren’t in this business.

It was difficult, but I pushed past my insecurities and pride and reached out to folks in the writing community locally and nationally. I opened up and shared my truth: Struggling through that book for a number of years scarred me some; left me uncertain of myself as an author.

I went looking for connection with like-minded folks. I joined a critique group, which is so not like me.

No judgement, please. I sought feedback on my work in ways I hadn’t before. Formed deeper ties with my agent; established closer relationships with authors I already knew, and developed a very close relationship with one author in particular. To this day, we read one another’s work, give and take each other’s advice, laugh often.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Skin I’m In, I formed a committee, reached out to
author friends, editors and other folks in the business. Ten years ago, I would not have done any of that. Do it yourself or leave it alone, was a big part of my philosophy then.

That bump freed me up. Allowed me to be as vulnerable with adults, as I’d always been with my teen audiences in person and in the books I write. I’m grateful for that.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The biggest stand-out change has to be the industry’s efforts to be more diverse and inclusive. We Need Diverse Books played a huge role in pressuring them to right the ship when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But they did not do it alone.

Black Lives Matter; the browning of the nation; the murder of black people and the political climate for LGBT and cis communities; along with women’s rights issues, all helped give WNDB the wind they needed to sail into publishing houses, conventions, media outlets, etc., and demand, work for, and push for change in children’s publishing.

Our community still has a very long way to go. But when I see black and brown people with books on The New York Times Bestseller lists; earning top awards and prizes; heading imprints like Salaam Reads or Versify; breaking new ground with books like The Hate You Give (by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)), We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices (by Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson (Crown, 2018)), and Long Way Down (by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2017)), then I know we’re headed in the right direction.

But we can’t get comfortable. There are folks who want us to return to yesterday.

Here’s hoping none of us will let that happen.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Don’t worry, God’s got you.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

My hope is that they understand that new voices and new ways of seeing and being are necessary to the survival of any organization or group of people.

Change makes us all uncomfortable. But change we must, for it’s the only way progress happens.

Learn more about Sharon G. Flake.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

One thought on “Career Achievers: Sharon G. Flake on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

  1. This is a great interview with Sharon G. Flake.She gives valuable insight into the ups, downs and bumps in the road to be coming a great writer and author. Thank you, Cynsations for this post!

Comments are closed.