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Pushing the
Envelope with
Urban Literature
Lara Walker, District Librarian
Finneytown Local Schools, Cincinnati, OH
What is urban literature?
Humans surviving life and death in ghetto streets
Characters experience unpredictable and often violent
lifestyles as a result of choices made due to a lack of
education and under or non-employment
Depicts what daily living is like on the margins of
mainstream American society
Authors have been telling the stories of marginalized
Americans for centuries.
These books and others helped spark the literary
movement known as naturalism (Morris 12).
1960s & 1970s
Robert "Iceberg Slim" Beck & Donald Goines:
depicted city life.
Captured crime, violence, gangs, poverty, incarceration,
and drug use of the ghetto.
Still revered by some hip-hop fans & artists (Pattee).
Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever was picked up
by a major publisher, and urban lit really took off.
(drug dealing, hustling, violence, incarceration,
pregnancy, theft)
Need for teen urban lit
Teens were reading these
adult urban novels...
BUT content of adult urban
lit was too mature for
Popular urban presses
(Triple Crown) and
mainstream presses
(Simon & Schuster &
Ballantine) started to
publish teen urban lit.
Series such as Bluford High
and authors such as Sharon
Draper, Angela Johnson,
Sharon Flake, Janet
McDonald, and Walter Dean
Myers were already being
published and providing
mainstream teen-friendly
urban novels.
Mainstream urban lit
Platinum Teen series
straightforward dialectical
language, laced with slang and
contemporary terms.
They were fast-paced stories that
tweens and young teens related to
(Morris 47).
Represented a shift in young adult
novels for urban, inner-city teen
Written in simple,
Teen Urban Lit
Familiar gritty, inner-city plot lines.
Sex & violence: limited to descriptions through characters'
conversations or references after.
Warnings: dire consequences for engaging in destructive or
criminal behavior.
Fast-paced stories, often with flashback
Vivid depictions of inner-city environment (substandard
housing, poverty, lack of resources).
The street as an interactive stage (things happen
on the street or because of the street).
Female/male identity formation via
intense relationships, often
Protagonists are often young adults
(age range is 19-25).
Surviving abuse, betrayal in friendships, fantastical
revenge plots.
Commodification of lifestyles
(name-brand this, bling-bling that).
Surviving street life and overcoming street lifestyle.
challenge of moving up and away from the streets
(Morris 3).
Why urban literature?
Author Teri Woods
"I can count the number of people who said things to me like 'Black
people don't read. You're wasting your time.'
Then there were those who had worked very hard, I'm sure, and
received a formal education who had their personal opinions. Many of
them also said, 'You can't write. That's not English. You don't even use
proper grammar; you can't write those slang words in a book'"
(Morris xii).
Opposition to urban lit
Cover art = racy.
Characters = promiscuous.
Story lines alternate between steamy & violent.
Language = harsh + often misogynistic.
Glorifies & glamorizes the thug lifestyle.
Exploits the black experience & reinforces stereotypes.
Non-standard English (African American
Vernacular English or Chicano English)
sets a poor model for literacy.
Writing = sub-standard + basic editing errors.
…but it's getting better...especially with teen lit!
The language, sex, & choices
made by tyrell left me feeling
as though this book had no
redeeming value and no place
in a school library.
...however, school library
journal gave it a starred
My first exposure 2007
Reality 2011-12
Students: "Do you have Push by
Sapphire or The Coldest Winter
Ever by Sister Souljah?"
Me: "They are not really
appropriate for school libraries.
Have you read Bluford High or
Students: "Groan...this library
SUCKS!!! There's nothing good to
To Drama or not to Drama
"Teens may not know the
different genre names, but they
ask for the books when they
request stories about growing up
in the city, gangs, guns, and
drama (for
teens, drama
does not mean plays)"
Eye-Opening JAAL article
Stephanie Guerra applied an evaluative process to
hundreds of urban lit novels and came up with a list of
100 that met at least 2 out of the 3 key criteria:
1. Does (one of) the main character(s) ultimately prevail in
doing what is right for the people around them?
2. Does (one of) the main character(s) grow in selfunderstanding?
3. Is the overall tone of the book one of hope or possibility
rather than despair, egotism, or anger?
The ultimate question
Does your library
collection reflect
the needs and
tastes of your
student population
or is it a reflection
of YOUR literary
My student population
Average district
enrollment: 1492
Black, nonHispanic: 40.1%
White, nonHispanic: 51.1%
(ODE 2010-2011 District
Report Card)
My ultimate answer
Urban lit novels reflect
life on the streets
back to kids who are
living it and needing
help making critical
decisions. It doesn't
matter if I think the
novels are "worthy" or
not. If my students
want and need to read
urban lit, I
going to help
...what's yours?
Cold, hard truth
Many of our students are living and operating in the same
raw and graphic conditions as those described in urban lit
Confronting this cold, hard truth is necessary to
understand why teens living in inner-cities want to read
stories that parallel their experiences.
What students have to say
"It's just so relevant to my life."
"I'm shaking, I'm so excited to read this book!"
"That's not me in the story, but I know that girl. I see her
walking down the street" (Morris 4).
"It's like a movie in my head" (Morris 4).
Why NOT urban literature?
"By taking the time to contemplate the world in which they
live, as readers the teens have a chance to decide: 'This
is not ME; these are just the circumstances of my
life right now. This is just my current world, my
current reality, but it is not the reality I want to live'"
(Morris 54).
7-12 libraries
Teen section = relatively tame
Young Adult section = edgy
Automation software set so that only students in gr. 9-12
can check out YA books.
Comfort Zone
And the winners are?
Do award winning books
always get checked out?
Do Urban lit novels get
checked out? YES!
In fact, they get stolen.
That is the TRUE sign of
approval in any student
Tyrell: character development
Coldest Winter Ever: exploration of voice in text
Riker's High: setting
Homeboyz, Jumped, and Patterson Heights:
cycles of violence
Lockdown, Riker's High, and Upstate:
Dope Sick: reluctant hero
Mexican White Boy or America: imagery;
Any urban lit novel: Power; privilege; identity;
politics of women; domestic relationships;
race/cultural stigmas perceived about African
Urban lit in the classroom
Cash-strapped decisions
Librarians have been slow to
purchase street lit.
unfamiliarity or discomfort
with the genre
absence of reliable
reluctance to buy books
that walk out the door
our collections are for use!
Author Teri Woods
"I'm here to say this: give them the books that lets them
read. Trust that the power of reading is what is affecting
readers the most, regardless of what you, as an
educator, might deem appropriate" (Morris xiv).
Middle School appropriate
(scroll down)
High School appropriate
Other types of Urban Lit
(scroll down)
Want to learn more?
Website to check out:
Morris, Vanessa Irvin. "Street Literature." Street Literature. N.p., 2012.
Web. 13 Oct. 2012. <>.
Corbin, Michael. "Baltimore City Paper." The Invisibles: Young Adult
Fiction Has Yet to Hear The Voices of Young, Urban, and
Black Readers. N.p., 24 Sept. 2008. Web. 07 Oct. 2012.
Guerra, Stephanie F. "Using Urban Fiction to Engage At-Risk and
Incarcerated Youths in Literacy Instruction." Journal of
Adolescent and Adult Literacy 55.5 (2012): 385-94. Wiley
Online Library. International Reading Association, Feb. 2012.
Web. 7 Oct. 2012.
Meloni, Christine. "Attracting New Readers with Hip Hop Lit.“ Library
Media Connection 25.5 (2007): 38-40. ERIC. Web. 7 Oct.
2012. <
Morris, Vanessa I. "The Street Lit Author and the Inner-City Teen
Reader." Young Adult Library Services 10.1 (2011): 21-24.
Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Oct. 2012.
Morris, Vanessa Irvin. The Readers' Advisory Guide to Street
Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 2012.
Pattee, Amy. "Street Fight: Welcome to the World of Urban Lit." School
Library Journal 54.7 (2008): 26-30. ERIC. Web. 7 Oct. 2012.
"Urban Fiction/Street Lit/Hip Hop Fiction Resources for Librarians."
Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. N.p., 30 Mar. 2006.
Web. 07 Oct. 2012.
Wright, David. Library Journal 131.12 (2006): 42-45. ERIC. Web. 7 Oct.
2012. <