Tag Archives: urban lit

Urban YAL, the Morpheus of The Literature Matrix

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images

Street fiction or urban YAL is finding its way into secondary classrooms.  As a former English & reading teacher, it puzzled me how kids who scored in the lowest quartile of the state assessment tests and claimed they hated reading were so engrossed in books like The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah or Dirty Red by Vicki Stringer.  Those students who listen to entertainers like T.I., 50 cent, etc. may carry around their latest forays into the genre.

The tests identified them as not having the ability to read.  But they were reading in my rooms.  Some teachers are opposed to this type of fiction for various reasons, but these books keep making the YALSA/ALA list of books for reluctant readers. I believe interest is the key into reaching these students.  Once you can get them hooked to reading, then you can move them to other types of genres.  Let’s face it:  these students feel like they have received the scarlet “F” when they get these reading scores back.  I have worked with students who failed the FCAT in Florida several times and were close to dropping out because it held them back from graduating.  I used innovative techniques to work with them and get their skills where they needed to be.  I advocate the use of out-of-the-box techniques to reach them and then use multifaceted instructional methods to teach them what they need to know and make them into competent readers.  Now I have my ideas about why standardized scores are low and how to reach struggling readers, but I will leave that issue for another time. 😉

So here is a little representation of  the varying views of this genre.  I asked various authors and avid readers for their opinions. Afterwards, you will find some YAL and teaching resources. 

Now take the red pill and enter the literature matrix.

Images found on Google Images

Images found on Google Images

In The Matrix trilogy, Morpheus says:  “You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Remember, all I’m offering is the truth-nothing more.”

Urban literature/street fiction offers the same to its readers.

It is a genre whose origins trace back to Robert”Iceberg Slim” Jones, Donald Goines, and Sister Souljah.  It depicts the lives of people who exist outside of the margin.

Characteristics of Urban/Street Fiction

  • Edgy lifestyle
  • May include explicit depiction of drugs, violence, & sex  and/or excessive use of profanity
  • Sometimes mirrors hip hop culture
  • Depicts characters in lower socioeconomic environments
  • Gives a voice to those who are voiceless
  • Drama-driven
  • Shows real-life issues & character’s desire to overcome circumstances
  • May be written by entertainers in the hip hop music industry
  • Heavy use of slang/Black English
  • No apologies for “This is who I am” mentality

The Black literature matrix is a platform to represent aspects of African American culture. It contradicts the images often found in the literary canon.  Works such as Beloved, The Invisible Man, A Lesson Before Dying, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and thanks to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, The Norton Anthology to African Literature, depict the broad spectrum of black experience.

In the last few years, urban fiction/street fiction has made its way on the literary scene.  It has always been there before.  But now, the genre dominates the brick-and-mortar and digital books shelves.  Those who crave literary fiction have a time finding those books. Sometimes it is like searching for a needle through a haystack.

Everyone has different views on this new kid on block.  Some people question whether certain images challenge or perpetuate stereotypes. Some wonder if the use of slang is purposeful or if it is a sign of a lazy or unskilled writer.

Some writers and avid readers of literature shared their views on urban literature:

Shelly Ellis, author of Gibbons Gold Diggers series, thinks that the use of slang should be reserved for dialogue and the characters’ inner thoughts only.  It should not be used in the overall narrative.

In her opinion, Black culture isn’t monolithic. Street fiction only represents a small part of both.  She feels authors should earn respect based on their work and not their genre. Drama and copious bloodshed is not a substitute for cohesive plot and characterization.

Diamond Drake, author of Love’s Fool, has the same opinion about the quality of writing in urban literature.  Her issue is with static characters and excessive grammatical mistakes.

“I think the reason some writers and readers are opposed to urban/street lit is because of the negative images portrayed and glorified.  What bothered me about the ones I’ve read is that there was never anything redeeming about them,” said the author.

Jamie Broadnax, creator of BlackGirlNerds, shares a similar concern about storylines that do not illustrate advancement and upward mobility in the black community. She said, “I question if this lit is being used to romanticize the life of being a thug or if there is really a story to be told.”

Nita Bee, book blogger, disagrees.  “[Slang] is the language of the ‘streets’ and it should be reflected in the writing.  I believe those that are opposed to [street fiction] have to mainly do with how the story is told.”

Nicole Dunlap, author of Miss Scandalous, said, “All genres should be respected from Christian to erotica, but not all genres are for all people.  Street lit is the rawest form of African-American fiction out there.  The bare bones of what you can read.”

Perhaps urban literature/street fiction is our Morpheus.  Urban literature/street fiction is just a small part of the continuum of African American literature and culture.  This continuum involves generational, socioeconomic, and historical lenses. The lenses people choose to view it through depend on their own personal experiences.

The genre defines the reality of those who choose to identify with it.  

Perhaps urban literature is a genre that deserves its voice, has its own characteristics that define it, and is a taste that one must acquire.  Just like some people do not care for romance, science fiction, fantasy, adventure, mystery, etc., all genres are still written works of expression.

Reading is an act that exposes people to different worlds and views. People do not have to follow or agree with them, but the writers didn’t create it for that purpose. They created those works as a form of art.

As students of literature, adolescents can read those works of art as texts for critical literacy.

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images

Teaching Resources:

  • Street Fiction—Teacher Tube (Click on Docs, & then search “street fiction.”  It is a Power Point presentation.)  http://www.teachertube.com
  • List of Urban YAL books


  • “Street Fiction:  What Is It and What Does It Mean for English Teachers?” Marc Lamont Hill et al.  English Journal.  January 2008 issue.
  • “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy & Critical Literacy” by Dr. Ann Lopez


  • Critical Literacy in the Classroom:  The Art of the Possible  by Wendy Morgan

More about the Contributors

Nicole Dunlap’s books can be found at www.nicoledunlap.com.

Diamond Drake’s books can be found at www.diamondrakebooks.com.

Shelly Ellis’s books can be found at www.shellyellisbooks.com

Check out Jamie’s BlackGirlNerds blog at www.blackgirlnerdy.blogspot.com

Check out Nita Bee’s buzzing book reviews and poetry at www.nitabee.com

What is a book that teens have read or you have used that has sparked a controversy?



Filed under Uncategorized

When Your Back Is Against the Wall, What Else Are You Gonna Do Except Hustle?: Tyrell by Coe Booth

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images


By Alexandra Caselle

Extra! Extra!

Read all about it!

Urban schools

are failing, failing, failing!

People, people,

What must be done?

Our kids can’t read or

write ; they can’t do math.

Man, please.

I know how to read and write.

I know that 2 + 2 =4.

I am not illiterate.

See, where I come from

2 + 2 don’t always equal 4.

It equals me getting shot

if I walk on a certain set

or getting beat down for

what I wear, who I associate

with, or where I live.

I know how to read words.

I sometimes comprehend what I read.

But, I also know how to “read” life.

I got to “read” guys standing on

the block trying to find out if

they are trying to be down with me

or use or abuse me.

I got to “read” the cops patrolling

my hood, trying to figure out

if they are really trying to serve

and protect or are they trying

to put another brother in the clank.

I got to worry about if my mama

is coming home tonight or if

I  have to feed my little brother

and be both parents

and on top of that handle being

a kid my damn self.

Oh, yeah.  I know how to write.

But, writing on some bs topic about

why the principal should enforce uniforms

doesn’t help me.

Let me write about why society

doesn’t erase the class boundaries that

make junkies and the homeless

roam aimlessly.

Let me write about the importance

of daddies sticking around so

their daughters don’t seek love inside

a fifteen minute sexual excursion

instead of themselves.

I know I need to get the skills

needed to survive in the real world

and gain my e-co-nom-ic  mo-bil-i-ty.

But, every time I look around you telling

me how I am failing and I’m trying to push

all these obstacles out of my way.

And now you wanna wonder why so

many of us are dropping out.

You hear those bells ringin’?

Class is over.

tyrellBooth, Coe. Tyrell. Push: 2007. 978-0-439-83880-1.

Tyrell is facing a lot to be only fifteen years old.  His father has been sent to jail for the third time.  His mother is not the poster child for the typical parent.  She wants him to get out on the streets and hustle to bring in income.  The burden of taking care of his young brother falls squarely on his shoulders.  To add to the family drama, he has girl trouble.  A new girl, Jasmine, poses a threat to his relationship to Novisha.  But he discovers that Novisha may have some skeletons in her closet that may destroy his trust in her.  Will Tyrell succumb to the sway of the streets?

I truly enjoyed reading this book.  I had used this book as a read-aloud with 11th & 12th grade struggling readers who had failed the state assessment exam several times.  They connected to Tyrell’s story and looked forward to hearing about what happened next every day.  Some of these kids abhorred reading.  A book was the other four-letter word just like pork was the other white meat.  But Booth pulled the students into the narrative.

Tyrell is a gritty tale that includes some mature scenes.  With the read aloud format, I could skillfully skip over those sections and maintain the students’ interests.  Since my classes had no set curriculum, I read aloud young adult novels as an opening exercise for my classes.  It gave me an opportunity to model reading strategies, teach vocabulary, and hone comprehension skills.  I often created tests based on the read aloud books because I believed in the interconnections among curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

 I specifically chose Tyrell for another reason.  It highlighted the broader definition of literacy that our students function in today.  Learning the basic tenets of literacy such as reading, writing, and mathematics is very important.  Literacy also entails technology and discourses.  According to James P. Gee, author of Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses, literacy is a type of a discourse.  A discourse can be defined as ways of reading, writing, acting, believing, thinking, etc.

With school literacy (reading, writing), there is a certain way to interact with text.  Within one’s neighborhood, church, family, workplace, culture, or society itself, there is a certain way to act, believe, think, etc.   All of those literacies impact our students, and we should embrace those other types of literacies in our classroom as a stepping stone toward guiding our students to the mastery of school literacy.

Tyrell is an excellent example of how different types of literacies or discourses impact an adolescent.

Text-to-Text Connections

upstate Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon  This epistolary novel describes the relationship between a young girl and her boyfriend and how his imprisonment changes both of them. I used this novel as a read aloud as well and used the epistolary format to teach different reading skills and reinforce vocabulary development.

bronxmasq  Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes  This multigenre novel blends poetry and narrative to tell the stories behind each chapter’s character.  Adolescent readers see how domestic violence and other social issues affect young people.  This is another great choice for a read aloud because the chapters are short and it works well for teaching different reading strategies.

bees  The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd  Lily and Tyrell are connected by the impact their circumstances make on them.  Both live with one parent, and Lily’s father and Tyrell’s mom are cut from the same cloth.  One can’t say that kneeling in grits for a long period of time will not distract a child from learning the three R’s.  Adolescent readers also learn the discourse of sorrow as they read about May’s wailing wall.

firstpartlast The First Part Last by Angela Johnson  Being a teenage father is hard enough.  Raising a young daughter alone because her mother is no longer there is even harder.  This is the dilemma that Bobby faces as he takes care of Feather.  Johnson’s narrative style of alternating chapters between the past and present engrosses reader into Bobby’s life.

Teaching Exercise for Tyrell

This exercise depicts a scene that did not occur in the novel.  I used the cloze technique (removing words from a passage and requiring students to use clues within the passage to choose the correct word) to assess students’ understanding of the weekly vocabulary words. In the upcoming weeks, I will begin posting short stories that will teach a vocabulary word, a reading skill, or literary term because I believe that stories can teach concepts.

Directions:  Choose the word from the list below that will best complete the sentences.






Novisha was angry with Tyrell.  Her girlfriend, Tasha, stayed at the same hotel.  She saw Tyrell walk into Jasmine’s room.  She called Novisha on her cell phone and told her what she had seen.  Novisha cried at first. Then she wanted to believe that Tyrell would not cheat on her.  She felt (1) ______________.  Novisha caught the subway over to the hotel.  On her way there, she noticed several people from different countries on the train.  They were (2) __________________from their homelands.  Even though she was mad at Tyrell, Novisha felt badly about them leaving without choice.  Novisha got off at her stop.  She showed (3) _______________ as she walked quickly down the sidewalk with her Timberland boots, Apple Bottom jeans, and matching Apple Bottom sweater.  She went inside the building and found her friend in the hallway.  Tasha pointed to room 207.  Novisha cracked her knuckles and popped her neck. The door was slightly cracked.  She threw it open and cried about the sight before her.  Tyrell and Jasmine were kissing each other passionately.  They did not notice Novisha at all.

Tasha took off her earrings and put her hair in a ponytail.  “Oh, no!  Girl, let’s beat both of them up!”  Tyrell and Jasmine looked up.  Tyrell stumbled toward Novisha.  Novisha slapped him so hard that she left her handprint on his jaw.  Jasmine got mad and shoved Novisha.  Tasha jumped in and the girls started to fight.  While they fought, Novisha (4) _______________the room and looked for more signs of Tyrell’s unfaithfulness.  Tyrell saw his chance to (5)_____________the drama.  He paused at the door and smirked at the girls.  It made him feel good to see three chicks fighting over him.   Today was a good day.


Filed under Uncategorized