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!
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):
Bronx Masquerade 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 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)
“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).
Monster by Walter Dean Meyers
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Perfect Chemistry 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
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).
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).
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).
Finally, I’d like to end with a poem that represents the Urban YA genre to me and its place in my classroom library:
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.