Why do so many teens gravitate toward street lit?

The Baltimore City Paper has a provocative article about the dearth of YA fiction reflecting the lives of teens in urban poverty.

Though librarians often think of authors like Walter Dean Myers, Coe Booth, and Sharon Flake as the answer to teens of color looking for reflections of themselves in literature, Corbin believes they don’t go far enough:

Take [Myers’s] 1999 novel Monster as a case in point. Often touted with book review hyperbole as his grittiest truth-telling tale, Monster is ultimately a pedantic cartoon…. Steve Harmon, the novel’s hero, gets caught up, a good kid hanging with the wrong crowd. But in the end, in an ending we all know, young Steve is reconciled, chastened, and therapeutically massaged back into the arms of the nuclear family, the clan of troubled but good kids, our kind of kids. He was merely an interloper in that other world. Those other characters whom Steve got caught up with–James King, Bobo, Osvaldo–they are cartoons; they can’t make the precious moral decisions, and therefore have a literary life, that Steve has to make. For they are those real urban, black kids, the kind who don’t read books, don’t write books, don’t have character.

In other words, the teens who make grey moral choices in order to survive—drug dealing, violence, other crimes—are never represented in YA literature as fully human.

This is a simplified view, but I think it goes a long way to explaining why the “young, urban, and black” readers Corbin mentions might feel more comfortable with—and excited by—a book like The Coldest Winter Ever or True to the Game where protagonists consider their own survival before considering the moral implications of their actions.

Street lit is a hot topic in urban libraries these days and is featured in YALSA’s Diversity in the Library podcast.What do you think?How do you see teens interact with mainstream YA titles and street lit books?

About Megan Honig

Megan Honig is the Teen Collection Specialist at the New York Public Library. When not blogging for YALSA, Megan can be found writing fiction herself, challenging negative attitudes toward street lit, and shocking teens by beating them at Dance Dance Revolution. Megan is also a member of YALSA's Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults Committee.

5 Thoughts on “Street Lit and Urban Teen Reading

  1. Until our recent order came in (yay!) we had a really limited selection of urban lit at my school, and they’re our most popular titles by far–girls come into the library in pairs, one of them returning a book so her friend can check it out immediately. A lot of these same readers know a substitute when they see one–when I feebly asked if someone who’d read all of our Omar Tyree and Tracy Brown offerings if she’d tried Walter Dean Myers, I immediately wished I could take it back. “This school is crazy about Walter Dean Myers,” she said, and her tone was unmistakable.

    But this isn’t to say that some of our teens won’t read “mainstream” titles, or even titles I would’ve thought were totally dated–one girl really liked Go Ask Alice, and I convinced another to give Robert Cormier a try.

  2. you may want to check out this related blog entry over at foreward magazine:


  3. sarah pillivant on October 20, 2008 at 10:53 am said:

    I work in an urban area, and although I’m happy to see this golden age of teen literature, the truth is that very little of it is written with characters my teens have something in common with. Many of the books with black characters are hardcore problem novels – where are the pleasure reads like Princess Diaries and Maximum Ride for teens who aren’t white or rich? Teens find out about urban fiction and snatch them up so they too can read for fun. 🙂

  4. I am an employee at Townsend Press and I didn’t find anything on your site about our Bluford Series!!! It has sold over a million copies and is avaiable online (at our website) for a dollar a book. Give them a try.

  5. Teenovela on November 15, 2009 at 9:42 pm said:

    How about young Latino readiers–any recommendations? Perhaps they watch telenovelas for entertainment featuring Hispanic culture and problems of the poor. One recent hit TV series (that NBC is reportedly interested in remaking a la UGLY BETTY, inspired by BETY LA FEA) is SIN SENOS NO HAY PARAISO which attracted huge audience of all ages.

    Based on novel SIN TETAS NO HAY PARAISO by a journalist who based in on young teens who attempted to break out of slum life in Colombia by becoming prostitutes to drug lords, a review in English can be found on ebsites of US libraries that carry the title.

    Title is twist on saying in Spanish, about how Eden wasn’t Paradise for Adam until a woman came along. Story is a morality tale, in which teens who make “good” choices find true happiness, thotse who chose life of crime end up dead or serving life sentence in prison.

    Young star of PARAISO next starred in NINOS RICOS, POBRES PADRES (Rich Kids–Poor Parents) showing that the rich are not necessarily blessed–rich parents may be ignorant about or unable to control their wild kids; poor but close families may be morally wealthy, a common theme in popular telenovelas..

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