Every month, we’ve been putting together a guide to a YA genre or format. Last month, we tackled short stories, and if you check that post out, you can get the link to all of our prior guides, which have covered everything from graphic novels to steampunk, contemporary/realistic to thriller and horror. It’s a series that has been just as educational to us as we hope it’s been to everyone who has found it useful.
This month is no exception.
The topic for this genre guide is urban fiction, a topic that we’re far less familiar with than I think we wish we were. It was always a topic on our list of potential choices, but when a reader asked me about it specifically, I knew it was time to roll up my sleeves and give it a shot. Kimberly and I are going to give this our best shot by defining, elaborating upon, and offering resources to YA urban fiction, along with a reading list, but this month in particular, we hope people who know more about this genre weigh in in the comments and offer us even more places to turn.
In many ways, urban fiction is a tough genre to define exactly because we all know what it is, but if we try to pin down an exact definition, we’re bringing up a host of our own biases to that definition. Urban fiction spans formats, too: there are graphic novels easily classified as urban fiction as much as there are short stories falling into the urban fiction category. You may be familiar with urban fiction under other names, too, including street lit, hip hop fiction, or ghetto lit. All of those terms, save for street lit, make me a bit uncomfortable to use because I think they reduce the genre to something much more specific than it is, and I think it also makes assumptions about the books and their readers. I think hip hop fiction and ghetto lit might instead be part of — rather than the defining feature of — urban fiction.
Though I think it’s clear, urban fiction is not the same thing as urban fantasy.
Much of the information I found defining urban fiction for teens comes from what Autumn Winters wrote in her Novelist genre guide, which you can download here. Urban fiction is a subset of realistic fiction set in today’s urban communities. Often, it could be described as gritty, as many of the story lines in urban fiction revolve around teens being in tough situations that can accompany life in a rougher community. This isn’t always the case, but one of the biggest appeal factors for readers of urban fiction is that it often pits teen characters into very adult situations. The stories are often filled with drama or melodrama, and characters can struggle with drugs, gangs, violence, drinking, sexual situations, and more. Winters notes in her guide that “glamor, crime, and shocking behavior are often present in large doses,” and while that may be the case for many urban fiction novels, I think because urban fiction is itself a fairly expansive category with many overlapping elements with other genres, this might be more of an appeal factor, rather than a defining feature.
Urban fiction is typically fast paced, and sometimes — though not always — it has a real appeal to more reluctant readers because it dives immediately into stories and characters who are easy to understand and, in some cases, reflect the perceived (or objective) reality the reader himself/herself lives.
An important note about urban fiction: while it often can appeal to African American readers and often features African American characters, urban fiction is not African American fiction. Urban fiction is written by and stars characters of all shapes and colors, even though most of the work is written by and features black characters. What really defines this genre is its marrying of an urban setting with realistic situations. Never make assumptions about the books nor about their readers. Urban fiction may hold tremendous appeal to teen readers who have never seen the likes of a city as much as it may be too much for readers who live those reality to seek out. Every collection should include some urban fiction though, as it’s not only a means of having a balanced collection but because it could open the eyes of readers to a whole new category of books they never thought they could love.
Winters notes in her guide that urban fiction can crossover with the broader category of African American lit, with literary fiction, as well as with urban Christian fiction. Last week, I blogged about Jason Reynolds’s When I Was the Greatest, set in Bed Stuy, in Brooklyn, which meets all of the criteria of urban fiction and has a literary bent to it. Much can be said about Coe Booth’s more literary “Bronxwood” series also fitting the definition of urban fiction, despite the fact the drama levels and pacing might not be quite the same as other books more commonly seen as urban fiction. So perhaps it’s best to think of urban fiction as quite a large category of realistic YA novels set in an urban landscape, and within that, there are places for novels that have a Christian angle, for those which are more literary (however you choose to define that), for graphic novels, and so forth. Maybe in thinking that way, terms like “street lit” and “ghetto fiction” are less synonyms for urban fiction and more types of urban fiction. I’m not sure how different those two may be from one another, but my larger point is that urban fiction is an umbrella term, and it can encompass a broader range of titles beneath it.
Like most other genres, YA readers can be well-served with adult urban fiction, too. Though the situations and scenarios will be even rougher, grittier, and more blunt than those presented in the YA fiction (or in some cases, they may be tamer or more literary or more message-driven in content), readers who seek out this kind of work may appreciate being shown all of their options. Some authors cross over and write urban fiction for both teens and adults.
So what resources are out there for learning more about urban fiction, as well as discovering the authors and books which could be considered urban fiction? Surprisingly, there’s very little. This is a category that, for a long time, was written and talked about widely, but in recent years, it seems to have become less of a popular genre to write or think about. That doesn’t mean it has in any way lessened in popularity with readers. Some of the resources below will be a little dated, but the information is still worth taking in and thinking about.
- Vanessa Irvin Morris might be the authority on street lit, as she literally wrote the book on this topic. She keeps a tremendous site over at Street Lit, which you should have on your radar. This isn’t all focused on YA, but there are many resources and posts about YA at her site. Don’t miss the street lit book awards, either.
- Want some reviews of urban fiction? Then check out Urban Reviews, which isn’t singularly focused on YA, as it also includes plenty of adult titles.
- Urban Fiction Resources: The Prison Librarianship blog has a tremendous resource of links for more information and reading lists for urban fiction. It doesn’t look like it has been updated in the last couple of months, but it has done a great job noting which resources they’ve included haven’t updated. Mining these should offer way more than we can offer here.
- Jennifer Fountain wrote about the top ten urban fiction books at the Nerdy Book Club blog last year, and it’s a great go-to for authors and series titles.
- Over at Writing Teen Novels, Paul Volponi talks about being honest in depicting reality in realistic fiction. What makes this worth reading is that Volponi writes urban fiction but may not be one of the first authors many readers would consider an urban fiction writer — except he does just that.
- This is less of a resource proper but more of a necessary read to get a grip on why urban fiction matters and how urban fiction is an expansive genre, rather than a reductive one: Urban Fiction is Reality for Us.
Recent Urban Fiction
With more of a handle on the genre itself, let’s talk about some of the books that have come out over the last few years that could be considered urban fiction. Some of these are more literary, some are more straight-on street lit. They all contain the hallmarks of urban fiction though: realistic stories set in urban areas that reflect some of the harsh, gritty, and sometimes (melo)dramatic aspects of that environment. All descriptions are from WorldCat, and additional titles that could be added to this list are more than welcome.
Before individual titles, it’s worth pointing out there are publishers, such as Saddleback and Kimani Tru that devote entire series and lines to urban fiction. Some of their titles will be called out below, but those are two to have as resources for further title suggestions.
A few authors and series to know as go-to urban fiction include NiNi Simone, Nikki Carter, Earl Sewell, Darrien Lee, Babygirl Daniels, as well as the Bluford High series and Perfect Chemistry series. Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Draper, Jacqueline Woods, and Angela Johnson are other authors who are worth knowing, but readers who are seeking more traditional urban fiction heavier on fast pacing, on drugs/drinking/sex/violence and so forth, should not be given those authors as go-to urban fiction writers. The color of an author or main character’s skin is not what defines urban fiction; it’s the content of the book itself. It is a spectrum, and readers will tell you what it is they’re really seeking in urban fiction. If they don’t, ask.
The Girl of His Dreams by Amir Abrams: The rules are simple: Play or get played. And never, ever, catch feelings. That’s the motto 17-year-old heartthrob Antonio Lopez lives by. Since his mother walked out, Antonio’s father has taught him everything he needs to know about women: they can’t be trusted, and a real man has more than one. So once Antonio gets what he wants from a girl, he moves on. But McPherson High’s hot new beauty is turning out to be Antonio’s first real challenge. Miesha Wilson has a motto of her own: The thrill of the chase is not getting caught. Game knows game, and Miesha is so not interested. She’s dumped her share of playboys and she’s determined to stay clear of the likes of Antonio Lopez–until his crazy jealous ex aggravates her. But when she decides to play some games of her own, Miesha and Antonio find themselves wondering if love is real after all.
Rumor Central by Reshonda Tate Billingsley (series): After appearing on the reality show “Miami Divas,” Maya Morgan is offered her own television show, but stepping up to the fame means spilling secrets about her friends, and someone will do anything to shut her up. (My teens LOVE this series).
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds: Ali lives in Bed-Stuy, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for guns and drugs, but he and his sister, Jazz, and their neighbors, Needles and Noodles, stay out of trouble until they go to the wrong party, where one gets badly hurt and another leaves with a target on his back.
Fighting for Dontae by Mike Castan: When Mexican American seventh-grader Javier is assigned to work with a special education class and connects with Dontae, who has both physical and mental disabilities, his reputation among gang members and drug abusers no longer seems very important.
Something Like Hope by Shawn Goodman: Shavonne, a fierce, desperate seventeen year-old in juvenile lockup, wants to turn her life around before her eighteenth birthday, but corrupt guards, out-of-control girls, and shadows from her past make her task seem impossible.
Takedown by Allison van Diepen: After years in “juvie,” Darren cooperates with the police to infiltrate a drug ring to settle a vendetta, but sweet, innocent Jessica is now in his life so when a deadly turf war erupts, Darren must protect not only his own life, but Jessica’s as well.
Bad Boy by Dream Jordan: Devastated to find herself back in a group home after a peaceful year of living with loving foster parents, a Brooklyn teenager striving to become strong and independent soon falls prey to the dangerous affections of a good looking but shady young man.
Boyfriend Season by Kelli London: Three girls in Atlanta fall in and out of love. Now each has an invitation to the hottest teen society party of the year. Can they handle the pressure of getting everything they think they want?
Blind Trust by Shay Jackson: Sherise thinks Carlos is fine. Everyone else, including her sister, Kiki, says he’s a thug. But Carlos swears that he’s out of the game.
DJ Rising by Love Maia: Sixteen-year-old Marley Diego-Dylan’s career as “DJ Ice” is skyrocketing, but his mother’s heroin addiction keeps dragging him back to earth.
The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Perez: After a brawl with a rival gang, sixteen-year-old Azael, a member of Houston’s MS-13 gang and the son of illegal Salvadoran immigrants, wakes up in an unusual juvenile detention center where he is forced to observe another inmate through a one-way mirror.
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and Randy DuBurke: A graphic novel based on the true story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, an eleven-year old African American gang member from Chicago who shot a young girl and was then shot by his own gang members.
Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia: The lives of Leticia, Dominique, and Trina are irrevocably intertwined through the course of one day in an urban high school after Leticia overhears Dominique’s plans to beat up Trina and must decide whether or not to get involved.
My Own Worst Frenemy by Kimberly Reid (series): Chanti Evans moves from the streets of Detroit to the exclusive Langdon prepatory school, where her upbringing immediately makes her a suspect in the string of thefts occurring on campus, and she must find the culprit and clear her name. (Though it’s set in a prep school, this has all of the hallmarks and appeal factors of urban fiction.)
The Final Four by Paul Volponi: Four players at the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament struggle with the pressures of tournament play and the expectations of society at large.
All That & Always Upbeat by Stephanie Perry-Moore and Derrick Moore: Two novels recount from different perspectives the challenges Charli Black and Blake Strong face in their relationship, personal lives, and at school.
Trouble & Triumph by T. I.: Leaving behind Power, the boy she’s come to love, Tanya “Beauty” Long makes a name for herself in New York City’s fashion industry, while Power becomes trapped in a world of drugs, women, and money where he makes a shocking discovery that brings Tanya back to him. (This one is adult, but it should have appeal for teen readers, with T. I.’s name recognition especially).
Young-Minded Hustler by Tysha: Shy’s son, Prince, grows up trying to follow in his dead father’s footsteps and be king of the streets, but when Shy’s boys are attacked and the wrong brother is shot, she is determined to take revenge.
Facing It by Anne Schraff: While helping out two rocker friends by fronting for their band, high school senior Oliver Randall finds his new-found fame intoxicating.
Ride Wit’ Me by Deja King: Sometimes in love, things are not meant to be. Parents can sometimes seem to be your enemy and the streets will always have their way of trying to destroy anything good. Will Mercedes and Dalvin fall victim to the obstacles standing in their way, or will they fight against the odds and ride it out.
Tricks by Ellen Hopkins: Five troubled teenagers fall into prostitution as they search for freedom, safety, community, family, and love.
Please add titles to this list. I tried to stay within a 2011 and forward publication date, so I would love to know even more titles falling within that span which make for good urban fiction.