Street Fight: Welcome to the World of Urban Lit

Teens love it. Some librarians loathe it. Welcome to the world of urban lit.

Street lit is controversial stuff. From the racy covers (think buxom babes and mouthwatering men) to the provocative titles (like Death Before Dishonor) to the assorted R-rated acts, it’s enough to make many librarians reach for the Advil. And they’re not the only ones. Grad students in my young adult and children’s literature classes are also befuddled. “Is it OK for teens to read urban lit?” they often ask me. “What do we do when kids request those titles?” The answers to these questions are tricky. In fact, there are no absolutely right or wrong responses. There is, however, a clear need for librarians to resist the urge to judge this genre by its covers and to take time to explore its stories. Even though street lit is a huge hit with today’s teens, you won’t find the semiautobiographical novels of Vickie Stringer and Nikki Turner, the grandes dames of urban fiction, on many (if any) high school reading lists or, for that matter, on some public libraries’ shelves. That’s because street lit (aka urban or ghetto lit) can be uncompromising, brutal, and direct—and its stories are often loaded with references to hip-hop and gangsta rap (which, like street lit, often walks a fine line between social criticism and profanity). Like the best-selling novels of Danielle Steele, Mary Higgins Clark, and Dean Koontz, street lit features its share of steamy and adrenaline-pumping scenes. But urban fiction focuses on the struggles of mostly young black men and women whose lives have been touched by crime and violence, and its tales take place on the pavements of Chicago; Queens, NY; Richmond, VA; Newark, NJ; and other urban centers. The most troubling thing about street lit isn’t necessarily its graphic descriptions of sex, violence, and drugs or its occasional fondness for gangsta rap’s explicit language or even that it seemingly glamorizes thug life. No, what many librarians may wince at is the uneven quality of its content. Since most urban lit was originally offered by small independent presses (and sold from street carts, sidewalk tables, car trunks, and mom-and-pop shops), some of its stories read more like first drafts than polished manuscripts, and it’s not uncommon for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors to permeate its pages. Still, when it comes to high-octane storytelling, unforgettable characters, and sheer teen appeal, there’s no denying that urban fiction is a tough ticket to beat. The genre, of course, is nothing new. Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck and Donald Goines published pulpy novels of city life in the 1960s and 1970s. And even though Goines died in 1974 and Slim in 1992, their works—like Goines’s Never Die Alone (1974) and Slim’s Mama Black Widow (1969, both Holloway House)—continue to resonate with hip-hop fans and artists, including the rapper Nas, who grew up in one of New York City’s toughest projects and once sang, “My life is like a Donald Goines novel.” If Goines and Slim are street lit’s founding fathers, then Sister Souljah may be one of its mothers. It was Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (Atria, 1999), one of the first urban novels to be picked up by a major publisher, that kick-started the current street-lit craze. Until recently, there was very little urban fiction written expressly for teens. But that didn’t stop kids from devouring adult street-lit novels like Sapphire’s Push (Knopf, 1996), a coming-of-age tale of incest and abuse, or K’wan’s Gangsta: An Urban Tragedy (Triple Crown, 2002). Even though novels like these may have hooked some kids on books, street lit’s critics (and some of its writers and publishers) argued that their content was too mature for teens. In response to that criticism and street lit’s growing popularity among kids, a number of popular urban presses, like Triple Crown, and mainstream presses, such as Simon & Schuster and Ballantine, are starting to publish urban fiction aimed at young adults. These tamer titles tend to follow a familiar plot—involving teen characters in the same dicey situations as adult stories. But unlike adult urban fiction, teen titles often keep sex and violence at arm’s length—describing these acts through conversations between characters or referring to events or actions that have already happened. Teen street lit also often includes warnings about the harmful consequences of destructive or criminal behavior. And some mainstream publishers are now offering a “safer” variety of teen street lit, such as Scholastic’s “Bluford High” and Harlequin’s “Kimani Tru” series—but beware, young connoisseurs of urban lit may find these more restrained stories babyish or inauthentic. There’s no getting around it: urban fiction forces many of us out of our comfort zones—and some librarians worry that by simply offering street lit, they’re endorsing its unsavory actions. And yet, these powerful stories represent the experiences of many of our nation’s young people, offering them an opportunity to see worlds similar to their own and giving them encouragement to escape their own difficult circumstances. Urban lit’s increasing popularity also forces us to examine our own predispositions: Do our collections reflect the needs and tastes of the young people we serve? Or do they just reflect our own literary preferences? Are we willing to challenge ourselves professionally and to open up to new forms of literary expression? Or are we set in our ways? As librarians who are committed to serving teens, it’s essential to embrace urban street lit—even if its stories occasionally clash with our values.
Amy Pattee, an assistant professor at Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, likes reading sexy novels—urban or suburban.

Urban Lit - A Core Collection

Adult Titles

The Coldest Winter Ever (Atria, 1999) by Sister Souljah After Winter Santiaga’s drug-kingpin father is arrested, the young teen leaves the easy and luxurious life she has known for a much rougher existence in foster care. Push (Knopf, 1996) by Sapphire Here’s another street-lit classic. When 16-year-old Precious, who lives in the projects and is pregnant with her father’s child, enrolls at an alternative school, she slowly forges a new path out of her dire circumstances. Let That Be the Reason (Triple Crown, 2001) by Vickie Stringer Stringer’s semiautobiographical novel features Carmen, a single-parent hustler who deals drugs and starts her own escort business to support her daughter. A Hustler’s Wife (Triple Crown, 2003) and Forever a Hustler’s Wife (One World, 2007) by Nikki Turner Des, one of the leading criminals in Richmond, VA, and Yarni, an innocent girl from a well-to-do family, hook up. But when Des is arrested, Yarni begins exploring the city’s criminal underworld. Gangsta: An Urban Tragedy (Triple Crown, 2002) by K’wan In this urban classic, best friends Lou-loc and Gutter leave L.A. for New York City, where Lou-loc sets his sights on getting out of the game and Gutter plans on expanding his criminal enterprise. With no legitimate work experience and no friends except for Gutter, can Lou-loc ever become the writer he’s always dreamed of being? Death Before Dishonor (G-Unit/Pocket Bks., 2007) by 50 Cent and Nikki Turner Hip-hop megastar 50 Cent started his own publishing imprint, G-Unit Books, and this collaboration with street-lit star Turner is sure to appeal to fans of both artists.

Teen Titles

Bluford High” series (Townsend, Scholastic) These 13 high-interest/easy-reading books follow a cast of mostly black high schoolers living in coastal California. “Kimani Tru” books (Harlequin) At last, some stand-alone titles that feature mostly female protagonists. “Hotlanta” (Point) series by Mitzi Miller and Denene Millner Identical twins Sydney and Lauren are startled to learn that their wealthy stepfather has been “running things in the hood Godfather-style for years.” This new series reads like an urban version of the “Gossip Girl” or “Sweet Valley High” series. “Drama High” (Dafina) series by L. Divine After Jayd James is bussed from her “hood” to a high school in an affluent, predominately white neighborhood, she gets dumped by her boyfriend for refusing to give up her “cookies.” When the feisty Jayd falls for a white, Jewish boy, the couple quickly becomes a target of racial hatred. “Platinum Teen” (Precioustymes Entertainment) series by Precious and KaShamba Williams Fourteen-year-old Dymond and her crew negotiate their first year in high school—plus their first boyfriends. “Del Rio Bay Clique” (Dafina) series by Paula Chase Although Mina sets her sights on clicking with an exclusive group of rich, black girls at her new school (which features kids from the hood and the burbs), she eventually discovers some unexpected friendships. Hoopster (2005), Hip Hop High School (2006), and Homeboyz (2007, all Hyperion) by Alan Lawrence Sitomer This trilogy about the Andersons, a black family living in racially polarized Los Angeles, features a heavy dose of drama and didacticism. Ride Wit’ Me (Young Diamond, 2006) by Katina King When Mercedes discovers her father is one of Chicago’s leading criminals and that her new boyfriend is the son of her father’s sworn enemy, the new couple vow to stay together—even though their families object. Tyrell (Scholastic, 2006) by Coe Booth Fifteen-year-old narrator Tyrell drops out of school to keep an eye on his younger brother while his family is staying in a sketchy shelter. When Tyrell develops a crush on a fellow resident, the expectations of the women in his life—his mother and his new girlfriend—clash big-time. Booth’s urban-influenced novel received rave reviews, including one from SLJ. The Sista Hood: On the Mic (Atria, 2006) by E-Fierce Mariposa only cares about one thing: making it as an MC. When she starts to fall in love with her best friend, she decides to impress him with her skills and forms an all-girl hip-hop crew.

Selectin’ & Collectin’ Urban Lit

The Word on Street Lit” Launched by Library Journal earlier this year, Rollie Welch and Vanessa J. Morris’s collection-development column specializes in building and maintaining urban-lit collections. “Street Daniel Marcou, a corrections librarian, creative writing instructor, and top-notch blogger, offers book reviews organized by author, topic—including “teen street lit”—and publisher, as well as links to author interviews. “Domingo Daniel D. Zarazua, the creator of this Web site, is a high school teacher and hip-hop DJ who reviews urban lit and offers some nifty hip-hop-related lesson plans. “The Urban Book This online magazine, which calls itself “the voice of urban literature,” features a lot of useful lists—including the “Top 10 Street Lit Books of All Time”—as well as a number of thoughtful articles.

The Indies

Since a lot of street lit is still published by small, independent presses and may not be available through major “jobbers,” it may be easiest to order some titles directly from their publishers. Young Diamond Books This site bills itself as the source of “premiere street lit for young adults.” To date, the imprint has only produced one title, Katina King’s Ride Wit’ Me. However, as King (also known as the popular adult urban writer Deja King) does have a history of publishing success, it’s likely that this imprint will get off the ground quickly. Platinum Teen The “Platinum Teen” series may be ordered through this Web site. GND Publishing GND is the publisher of K. C. Taylor’s young adult novel, Easier Without, and Any Possible Outcome, a collection of short stories. The site includes excerpts from both books as well as discussion guides. Q-boro Books Q-boro (based in Queens, NY) specializes in urban fiction for adults. Although you won’t find any street lit especially for teens here, you’ll find titles by Q-boro’s president and founder, Mark Anthony, a popular street-lit author. Triple Crown Publications An adult imprint, Triple Crown is run by Vickie Stringer, one of the founding mothers of the contemporary urban lit scene. Stringer has published two books by 16-year-old author Mallori McNeal that will appeal to teen readers.

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