In preparation for compiling a top ten list, I asked a good friend of mine if I could raid her English department library to brush up on my urban YA lit. As we poured over titles in a colleague’s classroom library, she asked, “How are you defining ‘urban YA?'”
I paused. “Well, YA titles with urban settings I guess?”(Dur).
I started to rattle off a number of what I felt to be obvious criteria: issues that deal with street violence, gangs, drugs, racial conflict, teen pregnancy, homeless teens, obscene language….and I stopped myself. Here I was, attempting to define a literary genre with every cliché that so many of my students are slapped with every day. I wouldn’t limit my understanding of my own students with these labels; how incredibly unfair of me to do it to the books they love!
Not only are these selections never sitting on the shelf collecting dust, they represent the realities of so many of our students whose stories traditionally have not been included in the literature we teach (or the titles with which we stock our classroom libraries). As a reading teacher, the following titles are “friends,” who I would gladly throw myself on my proverbial sword for if challenged, because the truth of the matter is these books could be challenged. Easily. The urban landscapes painted in these works are not only vivid and real, but their truth and complexity draws students into them, not the risqué four-letter words and adult scenes that keep pages turning and librarians cringing. The plots, while containing very adult themes, contain rays of hope amidst the stark realism of life on the streets for the protagonists who exhibit tremendous depth.
Lastly, I most appreciate these books for the sense of personal and reading identity they inspire in their reader. For many, these books are their first experiences with the sheer joy of reading.In these books, students recognize themselves, perhaps for the first time in their reading lives.
Top Ten Urban YA List (in alphabetical order):
by Nikki Grimes
“When Wesley Boone writes a poem for his high school English class and reads it aloud, poetry-slam-style, he kicks off a revolution. Soon his classmates are clamoring to have weekly poetry sessions. One by one, eighteen students take on the risky challenge of self-revelation…” (goodreads.com).
The power of the spoken word–of poetry to bring down walls and build bridges. The experience of reading Bronx Masquerade aloud with my students not only helped to shape their reading identities as they could relate to the myriad of characters who lend their voices, but it also allowed us to explore our own stories through poetry. This title is one where students feel compelled to write in response to and in imitation of the student voices they recognize so well.
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
“Bobby’s a classic urban teenager. He’s restless. He’s impulsive. But the thing that makes him different is this: He’s going to be a father. His girlfriend, Nia, is pregnant, and their lives are about to change forever…” (goodreads.com)
This is one book that I brought to my classroom after finding it tucked away in the corner of a YA stack in a local used books store. It came to class on a Monday, I book-talked it in each class, and on Tuesday morning it was gone, never to be seen again. But, I would hear about it in passing from my students who shared it among themselves, and then from their friends and friends of friends in the hallway. It is such a gentle book. I don’t know how else to describe it other than that the tenderness and sincerity of the narrator, Bobby, is like a feather lofting through a breeze. And so does the book, float from reader to reader. Even my most hardened non-readers find something familiar in Bobby’s struggle to be a single, teenage father and the heart-breaking loss he keeps tucked away
by Alan Sitomer
“When Teddy Anderson’s little sister Tina is gunned down randomly in a drive-by shooting, the gangstas who rule the streets in the Anderson family’s rapidly deteriorating neighborhood dismiss the incident as just another case of RP, RT-wrong place, wrong time. According to gangsta logic, Tina doesn’t even count as a statistic …” (goodreads.com).
In readers’ notebooks, I often find pages upon pages of students’ thoughts and reactions to this novel. Many of them feel they are Teddy. Empathy is hard to come by in many teens; Sitomer’s skill at painting characters who devolve truthfully through the course of the story enables the teen reader to put himself in another’s shoes.
Monster by Walter Dean Meyers
“Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I’ll call it what the lady who is the prosecutor called me.MONSTER” (goodreads.com).
Written as a screenplay, Monster is quickly devoured by any reader who opens to the first page of scrolling, Star Wars-esque credits. For some, however, reading a screenplay can be every bit as challenging as a full-length novel. But, once they embrace the form and listen as Steve stands behind and in front of the camera to try to process what has happened to him they are hooked to the end. Many readers feel compelled by the injustice as Myers masterfully paints the portrait of “the-boy-next-door” who made one mistake and is exposed to the harsh consequences of youth.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
“Written over forty years ago, S. E. Hinton’s classic story of the struggle between the Socs and the Greasers remains as powerful today as it was the day it was written, and it is taught in schools nationwide…” (goodreads.com)
Come on.Really?How could I not include the grand-daddy of all urban YA Lit?!I toyed with it, of course.But in the end, this timeless story still appeals to a wide array of readers in my high school classroom.Many students first encountered the book in middle school.In fact, in their reading biographies they write for me in the beginning of the year, The Outsiders, is the #1 book mentioned that they finished reading!Ever!With that kind of staying power, how could it not be on any top ten YA llist. Ponyboy is a reminder of the ever-present “socs” and “greasers” in the microcosm of high school.
by Simone Elkeles
“When Brittany Ellis walks into chemistry class on the first day of senior year, she has no clue that her carefully created “perfect” life is about to unravel before her eyes. She’s forced to be lab partners with Alex Fuentes, a gang member from the other side of town, and he is about to threaten everything she’s worked so hard for—her flawless reputation, her relationship with her boyfriend, and the secret that her home life is anything but perfect…” (goodreads.com).
Yes, it’s true; this is a re-told Romeo and Juliet…sort of. Perfect Chemistry is a prime example of the urban novel that crosses over from a landscape of privilege to challenge (Thomas, 2011). Even though the story and characters might border on cliché, the universal appeal and high-drama keep this book from collecting any dust on the shelf. I always find it interesting to watch the conversations between unlikely students that this novel sparks. Girls and boys alike of all backgrounds line up to read it and its subsequent sequels. They dub themselves the “Alex and Brittany Fan Club.””
The Rose that Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur
“This collection of more than 100 poems that honestly and artfully confront topics ranging from poverty and motherhood to Van Gogh and Mandela is presented in Tupac Shakur’s own handwriting on one side of the page, with a typed version on the opposite side” (goodreads.com).
I happened upon this tiny book by luck in the bargain bin at Borders Bookstore. I immediately saw its potential to engage students in poetry, but I couldn’t have imagined the fire it would ignite in my students. Not only were they astonished that they were allowed to read Tupac, they were thrilled to finally understand what I meant when I talked about choice–I really meant they had the freedom to choose books of their own interest. His collection of poetry became a gateway for students who would go on to Tupac’s biography, and then Jacquelin Woodson’s Tupac and D Foster, and into the worlds of Sitomer, Myers, and Drake.
Tyrell by Coe Booth
…”Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can’t get a break. He’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father’s in jail. …. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?” (goodreads.com).
Honestly, Tyrell had me blushing at times when I read it. I wondered how I could bring it into my class library without drawing too much attention. Luckily, my students have learned the value of discretion, especially when they find a book they love. What I love about Tyrell is that he is a deeply sensitive, complex, conflicted teenage boy…aren’t they all? The age-old father/ son conflict plays like a soundtrack behind the reading of this novel, even though the father character never makes an actual appearance. We see all kinds of women as well, who are brought to life through a sixteen-year old’s eyes. Despite the dire circumstances and odds, Tyrell inspires hope.
The Skin I’m in by Sharon Flake
“Maleeka suffers every day from the taunts of the other kids in her class. If they’re not getting at her about her homemade clothes or her good grades, it’s about her dark, black skin.
When a new teacher, whose face is blotched with a startling white patch, starts at their school, Maleeka can see there is bound to be trouble for her too. But the new teacher’s attitude surprises Maleeka. Miss Saunders loves the skin she’s in. Can Maleeka learn to do the same?” (goodreads.com).
How I love this book! I wish I could put this in the hands of every adolescent teenage girl, no matter their ethnicity, race, nationality, geography, or belief. I often need a box of Kleenex close buy as I read young girls’ responses to Maleeka’s struggle to accept and LOVE herself as she is. I swear, I think they walk a little taller by the end of this book.
Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanan
“Baby, the first thing I need to know from you is do you believe I killed my father?”
“So begins Upstate, a powerful story told through letters between seventeen-year-old Antonio and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Natasha, set in the 1990’s in New York. Antonio and Natasha’s world is turned upside down, and their young love is put to the test, when Antonio finds himself in jail, accused of a shocking crime…” (goodreads.com).
(Confession) I haven’t actually finished Upstate. I don’t remember how it came to be in my library collection. I know I picked it up a few times and put it down, feeling that it was too trite, superficial, and explicit for my taste. But, out of desperation to get a certain reluctant teen reading, I placed it in her hands, and it spread like wildfire. I have faith in this book after reading about its characters in many response notebooks. My current copy has been “permanently borrowed,” but I’m not upset about it; I know it’s out there, floating from reader to reader inspiring hope.
Finally, I’d like to end with a poem that represents the Urban YA genre to me and its place in my classroom library:
Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s law is wrong it learned to walk without having feet. Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.