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Revered author Sharon G. Flake got 'stuck' while writing her new novel

Sharon G. Flake is the award-winning author of children's and young-adult books including "The Skin I'm In."
Courtesy of the author
Sharon G. Flake is the award-winning author of children's and young-adult books including "The Skin I'm In."

Sharon G. Flake is an acclaimed author of fiction for children and young adults with at least one classic to her credit. But she said that at one point not so long ago, there was a chance her latest novel, “Once in a Blue Moon,” would be her last.

The novel — written in verse — is about James Henry, an 11-year-old Black boy suffering from crippling anxiety in small-town 1930s North Carolina, and his fearless twin sister (and protector), Hattie. Flake said partway through the book, she got “stuck”: She didn’t know where the story was headed.

Flake, 67, published her classic first novel, “The Skin I’m In,” in 1998, but said she’s been less prolific in recent years. While struggling with “Blue Moon,” she said, she heard a voice in her head (“I think it was God”) telling her to seek help. She found a counselor who works with “athletes who are stuck,” and those conversations made her realize she shouldn’t worry about things she couldn’t control.

Finishing the book still wasn’t easy. “Some days I sat down to write ‘Once in a Blue Moon,’ literally my insides would be quaking, right, because I’d be like, ‘OK, can I do this? Can I come out of my head?’” she said.

Before she handed the manuscript to her editor came another conversation with God: “‘OK, God, if this book doesn't sell, then I'm not going to try to get published anymore.’”

Flake made peace with that decision. “I said to myself, ‘You know, you wrote ‘The Skin I'm In,’ right?’” she said. The award-winning novel about a 13-year-old girl battling low self-esteem because of her dark skin tone has sold well over a million copies. “I had to remind myself during the course of that, ‘OK, you don't have to keep proving yourself. You’ve sort of done the work that you set out to do.’”

Across a dozen books, that work has largely been about expressing the challenges, fears and desires facing young Black Americans. In the case of “Blue Moon,” the story came to feel especially personal.

The setting for James Henry and Hattie’s story was inspired partly by the life of Flake’s father, who grew up in North Carolina in the same era. (He’s now 96.) And Flake felt increasingly close to James Henry, whose anxiety is bound up with a terrible accident involving his mother that his sister tries to help him to confront and overcome. For most of the book, though, he struggles to go outdoors, or to speak to anyone not in his immediate family.

“I know the anxiousness that James Henry goes through,” said Flake. “And ‘Once in a Blue Moon’ — I lived it. I went through it all my life and people didn't know it. And they don't think about me that way, I don't think. But I know what it's like to be afraid, to be anxious to be in your head.”

And just as James Henry and Hattie — fans of the Buck Rogers radio serial — build a rocket ship on their rural rooftop and imagine flying it through the cosmos, so Flake speaks of writing in terms of defying gravity.

“For me, writing was always a form of flight, right?” she said. “A form of freedom where I wasn't stuck. I could fly. So, to sort of be stuck in that space, I remember saying, ‘Oh, God, not here. Like, let me be stuck here and there and there, but don't let me be stuck here where I write, where I know myself the best.’”

Early reception of "Once in a Blue Moon" has been strong, with positive reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.

Flake said her decision not to worry about sales of her new book was also one of the things that freed her to write it in verse — a first for her. James Henry’s plain-spoken poetry plays out in hundreds of short chapters, many of them a page long or less. Flake said she thought the shorter format would “be easier on my soul, which it was. Didn't make it easy, but it was easier on my psyche and my soul.”

Bill O'Driscoll